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October 30, 2005 - Follow-Up Notes

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Back on October 16 in these pages - in Who Believes, and Why? - there was this on the Harriet Miers nomination –


The problem seems to be that the Republicans made a commitment to the religious right, the evangelical born-again crowd, that for their support they would throw them a bone now and then. And the religious right felt - after all the years of being mocked and having to endure people arguing "under God" had no place in the Pledge of Allegiance, and being told officers at the Air Force Academy couldn't demand all cadets find Jesus, and they couldn't force all children in public school to mouth their approved prayers every day, and they couldn't have cities and states finance religious displays, and so on - well, this was pay-back time. They'd get this born again church lady or someone like her.


These very angry people feel they have God in their pocket and know "the truth" and all the rest.

Then I came across this from Samuel T. Lloyd III, the Dean of Washington National Cathedral:


If God were to be fully and completely revealed, if we were to see God beyond all hiddenness and mystery, our freedom would disappear. We would be forced to believe, forced to be obedient. No, this hiddenness is God's blessing.

Certitude is a spiritual danger. If we claim to know God's ways without question, we limit God to the shape of our own minds. As St. Augustine put it 1700 years ago, 'If you think you understand, it isn't God.'

One of the troubling currents of our time is the tendency of religious people to speak as if we have seen God's face. A lot of what is being said in religious circles can suggest that some people claim to have God figured out, under control, in their pockets.


Now this suggests a deeper divide than the one currently tearing apart the conservative movement, the split between, on one side, the elitist, intellectual, well-read thinkers opposed to the Miers nomination, and, on the other side, the populists who find matters of the heart and trust and blind faith (is there any other kind?) are far more important than books and thinking and all that fancy stuff.

The split here is between the theology of doubt and humility - God is not knowable and his ways are beyond man's limited mind - and the theology of proud certainty - "God spoke to me - and told me what to tell you what must do."

Those who would evangelize - that is, bring "the word" to everyone, everywhere, and save them by forcing them to convert to what God specifically told them that all folks should be thinking, doing and believing - are of the second group. 


The first group just worships, and wonders about things, and understands there are things they just don't know. 


The second group knows.  They see no problem.  God's a good guy who told them what's what, even on the minor details of constitutional law.

What if these two opposing views square off now?  You can see the animosity growing.  Traditional Christians want their religion back.  Traditional Republicans want their party back.

Big questions - "Is God knowable?" - "Is doubt a good thing, or at least inevitable?" - are the province of theology.  These are deep thoughts for sunny, dusty seminar rooms late in the afternoon, or for lonely writing after midnight.

But perhaps now they are political questions too.  And is such, how key people answer these questions concerns us all.


The president's moral certainty and his born-again conviction that what he does is right, because he found Jesus when he was forty, comes to mind. (So did Harriet Miers, by the way. She was forty when she abandoned her Roman Catholicism, found Jesus and walked away from "The Cult of Mary," had a real, full-immersion baptism and all the rest.)

Augustine said, "If you think you understand, it isn't God."  Dobson, Falwell, Robertson, Ralph Reed, and all the rest, disagree.  For them, certitude is not a spiritual danger, it's a career necessity, and profitable (subtle pun).

And why pay attention to a saint, even Augustine, when you get the word on the day's issues directly from the top?

This is all quite curious.  One can sense a real pissing contest coming - a theological and philosophic pissing contest, of all things.

Too bad it matters so much.


In these pages on October 23 - in Doing Good, Doing it Right - there was a bit of discussion of this incident:


Australian television on Wednesday broadcast footage of what it said was U.S. soldiers burning the corpses of two dead Taliban fighters with their bodies laid out facing Mecca and using the images in a propaganda campaign in southern Afghanistan.

The television report said U.S. soldiers burned the bodies for hygienic reasons but then a U.S. psychological operations unit broadcast a propaganda message on loudspeakers to Taliban fighters, taunting them to retrieve their dead and fight.


There was lots more detail, and this just makes matters worse in the Middle East, of course.  For reason mentioned, this burning the bodies and taunting the civilians is a major insult to Islam, not to mention just a really boneheaded tactic.  "Our Man in Baghdad" says he may have something to say on this matter, but, as you must understand, he's pretty busy.  He may not have time.

But someone on the ground at the time thought this was just the thing to do - use their religion to get them to do something stupid, or at least to let them know who's top dog and shouldn't be messed with.  Let them see how foolish and powerless they are, so they'll be more compliant.  (Yes, the logic of expecting compliance after such is questionable.)

Andrew Sullivan has a comment here:


... we should not transform this war into one against all Islam. Abusing Islam in military prisons or on the battlefield is both immoral and deeply counter-productive. Using people's religious conscience against them is a mark of totalitarian countries, not one where religious freedom is paramount.


Of course, this is not who we are, except for our current leaders - who we elected this last time without any ambiguity.  Okay, maybe it is how fifty-one percent of us are - quite willing to use people's religious conscience against them.  But that's not what we say.

Perhaps it's time to explain to the fifty-one percent that even if this sort of thing really feels good, and makes you feel all righteous and superior, it DOESN'T WORK!

Yeah, it's un-American.  But they don't want to be told that.

How about this - this sort of thing just makes people very, very mad, for a very, very long time.  Think about that when Cleveland becomes a radioactive crater and there's no more Rock 'n' Roll Museum.


In these pages on October 23 - in The Autumn of Reaching the Limit of What You Can Put Up With - there was a note that the New Yorker is running an article by Jeffrey Goldberg in which Colin Powell's longtime mentor, Brent Scowcroft, "levels a 'powerful new attack' on the Bush administration."


Yes, Scowcroft worked for Bush's father, but publicly opposed the war, then gave in and said something like "whatever."  The idea is the guy expected the younger Bush's administration to "revitalize the Middle East peace process and start engaging seriously with Iran, two things that pretty clearly haven't happened."  The thought is he's had enough now.  And it seems this that Goldberg article will contain some "incredibly juicy commentary from President George H. W. Bush on the performance of his son's national security team."

The article is "Breaking Ranks: What Turned Brent Scowcroft Against the Bush Administration?" - Jeffrey Goldberg, The New Yorker, 31 October 2005

The article is not available on the web - you have to buy copy of the actual magazine to read it - but there are some long excerpts here, and one can stretch the Fair Use Doctrine and make some comments.

Brent Scowcroft is one of those reality-based folks, it seems –


The first Gulf War was a success, Scowcroft said, because the President knew better than to set unachievable goals. "I'm not a pacifist," he said. "I believe in the use of force. But there has to be a good reason for using force. And you have to know when to stop using force." Scowcroft does not believe that the promotion of American-style democracy abroad is a sufficiently good reason to use force.

"I thought we ought to make it our duty to help make the world friendlier for the growth of liberal regimes," he said. "You encourage democracy over time, with assistance, and aid, the traditional way. Not how the neocons do it."

The neoconservatives - the Republicans who argued most fervently for the second Gulf war - believe in the export of democracy, by violence if that is required, Scowcroft said. "How do the neocons bring democracy to Iraq? You invade, you threaten and pressure, you evangelize." And now, Scowcroft said, America is suffering from the consequences of that brand of revolutionary utopianism. "This was said to be part of the war on terror, but Iraq feeds terrorism," he said.


"You invade, you threaten and pressure, you evangelize."


That about sums it up.  Why did these guys think THAT would work?  Revolutionary utopianism just sounds like a bad idea.  Utopianism?

But better days ahead?


Scowcroft and those who share his views believe that the reality of life in Iraq at the moment is undermining the neoconservative agenda. Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who served as Colin Powell's chief policy planner during the first Bush Administration (and who was Scowcroft's Middle East expert on the National Security Council during the first Gulf War) said that the days of armed idealism are over. "We've seen the ideological high-water mark," he said. "I mean wars of choice, and unilateralism, and by that I mean an emphasis, almost to the point of exclusion of everything else, on regime change as opposed to diplomacy aimed at policy change."


The smart money bets the days of "armed idealism" are far from over.  Regime change is far easier than diplomacy, or at least it polls better.

Brent Scowcroft was a key player in the administration of Bush 41 - a West Point man who became National Security Advisor - so what does he think of Bush 43?


When I asked Scowcroft if the son was different from the father, he said, "I don't want to go there," but his dissatisfaction with the son's agenda could not have been clearer. When I asked him to name issues on which he agrees with the younger Bush, he said, "Afghanistan." He paused for twelve seconds. Finally, he said, "I think we're doing well on Europe," and left it at that.


That's cold, but we're only doing a tad better in Europe, Brent.  Doing well will have to come later.

As for Condoleezza Rice, the former National Security Advisor who is now our Secretary of State –


"She says we're going to democratize Iraq, and I said, 'Condi, you're not going to democratize Iraq,' and she said, 'You know, you're just stuck in the old days,' and she comes back to this thing that we've tolerated an autocratic Middle East for fifty years and so on and so forth," he said. Then a barely perceptible note of satisfaction entered his voice, and he said, "But we've had fifty years of peace."


This Sate department doesn't do "peace," it seems.  They're utopians.

Scowcroft on Paul Wolfowitz, the thinker in the administration (and Scooter Libby's Political Science teacher at Yale) who said we'd be greeted with flowers, there was no history of sectarian strife over there to worry about, we'd be out in six months, and the thing would pay for itself with the flood of oil review to the new Chalabi government - and on Wolfowitz' sidekick Kagan –


"He's got a utopia out there. We're going to transform the Middle East, and then there won't be war anymore. He can make them democratic. He is a tough-minded idealist, but where he is truly an idealist is that he brushes away questions, says, 'It won't happen,' whereas I would say, 'It's likely to happen and therefore you can't take the chance.' Paul's idealism sweeps away doubts."

Wolfowitz, for his part, said to me, "It's absurdly unrealistic, demonstrably unrealistic, to ignore how strong the desire for freedom is."

Scowcroft said that he is equally concerned about Wolfowitz's unwillingness to contemplate bad outcomes and Kagan's willingness to embrace them on principle. "What the realist fears is the consequences of idealism," he said. "The reason I part with the neocons is that I don't think in any reasonable time frame the objective of democratizing the Middle East can be successful. If you can do it, fine, but I don't think you can, and in the process of trying to do it you can make the Middle East a lot worse."

He added, "I'm a realist in the sense that I'm a cynic about human nature."


Well, he's eighty years old.  He's earned the right to that view.

As said here last week and before that, the chances of Iraq turning out to be a Jeffersonian democracy and all three sides living in harmony in a prosperous, secular, unregulated free-market, flat-tax capitalist Starbucks and Wal-Mart paradise, that transforms the whole Middle East, seems more and more remote every day.


It may have never been possible.  But if there's a chance, even a slim chance, why not try for that?  Hell, one could spend a dollar and actually win the lottery.  It's quite possible, though not probable.

The problem is the cost.  It's a cost-benefit thing.  Is three hundred billion dollars, and two thousand dead soldiers, and ten thousand maimed for life, just a lottery dollar to these guys?  It's not their money, nor their kids' lives.  And this could work out fine?  The odd are against us.

And the discussion is pointless.  Our leaders decided it was possible.  They don't deal with things like whether it was remotely "probable" at all.  They're an idealistic, hopeful lot.  And their kids aren't dying.  The chances were always more that wildly remote - they were infinitesimal - but why not go for it?  Well, their kids aren't dying for the longest of long shots.

Oh well, note Matthew Yglesias here


I'll certainly read the article on Brent Scowcroft when it comes out, but I feel compelled to at least semi-dissent from the heaping of praise upon the likes of Scowcroft, Larry Wilkerson, Richard Haas, and other Republicans who've started speaking out against the Bush administration lately. Everything they say could have been said 12-18 months ago when it would have made a difference for the future of the country. But that would have meant taking fire from the then-intact conservative attack machine, and gotten them labeled as bad party men. Instead of speaking out when Bush was strong and trying to weaken him, they've waited until Bush is weak and decided to pile-on in an effort to save their own reputations.

Better late than never is a true enough adage, I suppose, but it's actually pretty shabby behavior. It also tells you a lot about the way Washington operates and the sort of dysfunctional culture that deserves a lot of blame for the unfortunate circumstances in which the country now finds itself.


The man has a point.  But we could have a revolution and throw the bums out.  Jefferson himself suggested having those now and then might be necessary, and a good thing - "Every generation needs a new revolution."

Maybe it's time.


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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