Friday, May 16, 2008

Thoughts while listening to podcasts, or Why W ought to be a liberal's favorite letter

I was listening to Ross Douthat's interview of Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland and I was struck by Douthat's point that for all of Nixon's cynicism and dark plots, his pettiness and veniality made him less dangerous to the Republic than a more competent and emotionally secure cynical politician.

Here's a snip from Douthat's review of Nixonland making the same point
And yet one doesn’t have to excuse Nixon’s many sins to wonder whether his mix of ruthlessness, self-interest, and low cunning might have been preferable to some of the alternatives on offer. Perlstein depicts a country on the edge of a civil war—a nation in which columnists openly speculated that America might embrace a de Gaulle–style man on horseback, or find a “President Verwoerd” (the architect of South African apartheid) to install in the Oval Office. It was a political moment when the old order could no longer govern, and the new order wasn’t ready. The kids who screamed for Goldwater and McGovern would grow up to be responsible Reagan ites and Clinton ians, but back then they had only idealism, not experience, and Nixonland is an 800-page testament to the dangers of idealism run amok.

......Perlstein sometimes seems to suggest that Nixon was the abyss, and that by choosing him we vanished into it. But this misunderstands contemporary America, and it misunderstands Dick Nixon. A cynic in an age of zeal, a politician without principles at a moment that valued ideological purity above all, he was too small a man to threaten the republic. His corruptions were too petty; his schemes too penny-ante; and his spirit too cowardly, too self-interested, too venal to make him truly dangerous. And he was a bridge, thank God, to better times. Could America have done better? Perhaps. But on the evidence of Nixonland, we could have done far worse as well.

The parallels to our current situation seem striking. I had listened to another Douthat Interview with Ezra Klein earlier in the day, and what I took from Klein was that his concern with the Iraq war is not so much that the war was prosecuted incompetently but that the war was pursued illegitimately (by which he means that the war was not endorsed by a multilateral institution, specifically the UN). I disagree with Klein's belief that a war must be Sanctioned by the UN or some other transnational body in order to be legitimate but leaving that aside, the reason that the liberal side is ascendant in our understanding of the war is that it has gone poorly. The Mexican-American war was recognized by many people in the Army and in the General Population as a really illegitimate and cynical act of aggression but there was no real move to undo the decision, even when war opponent Lincoln gained power. The war had been won quickly and the rewards were tangible enough that the public never renounced the idea.

Had the occupation of Iraq been well planned and run, the question of the propriety of invading Iraq in the first place might never have broken into the national dialogue. Throughout the past few decades, Americans have removed multiple governments by military force. Generally that has happened well before the American public became restive (even if the consequences beyond our attention span were not good). As a result, it became accepted that we could easily take out governments that we disliked and the question of whether we should never got a wide airing. But now, as the war has dragged on, it has become more acceptable across the ideological spectrum to ask whether we should be in the business of regime change. In that way it seems that George W. Bush has performed a National Service.

No comments: