Monday, July 16, 2007

Heroes and History

New York Times: By David Brooks
Conservatives are supposed to distrust government, but Bush clearly loves the presidency. Or to be more precise, he loves leadership. He’s convinced leaders have the power to change societies. Even in a place as chaotic as Iraq, good leadership makes all the difference. ...

He is confident in his ability to read other leaders: Who has courage? Who has a chip on his shoulder? And he is confident that in reading the individual character of leaders, he is reading the tablet that really matters. History is driven by the club of those in power. When far-sighted leaders change laws and institutions, they have the power to transform people. ...

Tolstoy had a very different theory of history. Tolstoy believed great leaders are puffed-up popinjays. They think their public decisions shape history, but really it is the everyday experiences of millions of people which organically and chaotically shape the destiny of nations — from the bottom up.

According to this view, societies are infinitely complex. They can’t be understood or directed by a group of politicians in the White House or the Green Zone. Societies move and breathe on their own, through the jostling of mentalities and habits. Politics is a thin crust on the surface of culture. Political leaders can only play a tiny role in transforming a people, especially when the integral fabric of society has dissolved. ...

But if Tolstoy is right, then the future of Iraq is beyond the reach of global summits, political benchmarks and the understanding of any chief executive.


Brooks' juxtaposition of W and Tolstoy is startling, and unconvincing. These are not the only alternatives (there are two kinds of people, those who divide the world into two kinds of people,...). Bush's delusional idiocy does not establish any particular opposing view (except, perhaps, that he and Cheney should be removed from office asap).

On Iraq (and much of the Middle East), I am dubious about the ability of outsiders with little understanding of relevant history, religion, and culture to impose massive change to achieve externally determined objectives. Duh. But I guess there are powerful people who thought (and, in some cases, continue to think) otherwise. They sure can make a mess.

1 comment:

martin g said...

Hello Prof. I went and read the rest of the column and Mr. Brooks, as usual, is sounding like an apologist for the president. He says that "Many will doubt this, but Bush is a smart and compelling presence in person". I never doubted that Bush could appear as such. He is a skilled political campaigner. He is a university trained cheerleader. That is his "secret weapon", a very useful one to have in politics. I myself know a person who has made a career of appearing "smart and compelling". He uses that ability to get others to pay for his drug addiction. Throughout history there have been fools and villains who have possessed such a talent.

On the surface Brooks' comparison of Bush and Tolstoy seems to be asking the question, "Do we stand against the tide of events in order to shape our future or do we simply let ourselves be swept along?" Powerful and obvious implications there. I would have to say that we need to be mindful of the course of events we find ourselves involved in and always be steering through in such a way that we don't end up in a bad place. Right now we are headed for the rocks, if not already on them. Does Bush sincerely believe there is a way through, or is he just waiting for the next helmsman to relieve him?

I sometimes wish I could advise this president. I never voted for him but I have always been mindful of the fact that as a citizen my fate is tied to his. I didn't want to see the Iraq adventure fail. I had my doubts, but of course I was in no position to claim to know better. In any case I would have told him that there is a difference between preemptive war and preemptive police action. Preemptive police action (or the preemptive strike) must be substantially justified by good evidence before the fact, and absolutely justified after the fact by catching the culprit red handed or uncovering incontrovertible evidence of conspiracy. If it is not shown to be justified then society owes compensation to the suspect. As for preemptive war, it is merely a euphemism for war of aggression.

I was made terribly uncomfortable by the escalating ultimatums issued against Saddam. It reminded me of the tactics used against Czechoslovakia in the '30s. It betrayed an intention to act regardless of compromises being offered. Even when dealing with a dishonest party an ultimatum must be given in good faith. Otherwise, why should any current or potential opponent ever trust what you offer? I would have pointed out to Bush that to be the "global policeman" we can only act under "global authority" for the purpose of protecting "global interests". No legitimate police force acts independently/unilaterally nor do they act primarily in their own self interest.

I would have told Bush that it is better to do the wrong thing for the right reasons and fail, than it is to do the right thing for the wrong reasons and succeed. The successes you have are done and gone while your reasons for acting stay with you. Failures made in good faith can be corrected. But on the other hand, when acting with bad faith, sooner or later you will do the wrong thing for the wrong reasons and fail. Then your less than honest intentions will be clearly revealed. Is Iraq an example of doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons? Mr Brooks wants us to believe that the president has done the wrong thing (poorly planned invasion of Iraq) for the right reasons (freedom, democracy, etc) and is now attempting (in good faith) to correct the failures that resulted from acting precipitously. At this point I no longer buy the "good reasons" story. The first story of Saddam being an imminent threat was at best an exaggeration and at worst a complete fabrication. I suspect that a hodge-podge of reasons were really behind the decision to invade. For example: Political capital gained from an easily won war. Ending the embargo and opening up Iraq to American business. Removing a chronic security threat to Israel and the Gulf States. Creating operating bases for our military that would be less problematic than using Saudi territory. Putting pressure on Iran right at their doorstep. None of these reasons (except waging war for political gain) are immoral in and of themselves. But they certainly don't justify going to war, either separately or collectively. For now all these reasons can remain hidden or denied because we haven't yet reached the point of complete failure. The problem is that they still hold sway over the Bush administration and this makes finding the right corrective for the failing strategy all that more difficult. Maybe we should be glad that they didn't succeed! If they had then we might have been drawn into something far worse, such as war with Iran.

If Brooks is implying by the title of his piece that history will judge Bush to be a hero for staying the course, then he is counting on an extremely unlikely outcome. That title appears to me to be a perfect example of pathetic irony. If Bush wants to be remembered as an heroic figure than he is going to have to demonstrate a level of political courage that we haven't seen since Lincoln. He will have to admit that not only were the tactics flawed but that the entire strategy was faulty. He will have to embrace a completely new plan that is transparently obvious to all parties, even those opposed to us. He has to do the right thing for the right reasons.

Sorry for the long winded comment, Prof. I should come back here more often. I first saw this page linked from Althouse a few months ago. I read over your info then and thought it impressive and interesting. Saw (googled) the link today because I wanted to read Brooks for free. I found the entire column elsewhere. How unethical! And here I am moralizing at such length too!