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America vs. The World

The big trouble with dumb bastards is that they are too dumb to believe there is such a thing as being smart. — Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Lincoln, where are you?

America has generally been lucky in its selection of presidents. Not that we haven't had our share of shitty ones (thanks for the 30 days, Harrison), but we've produced some of our finest leaders when we truly needed them.

James Buchanan
Abraham Lincoln
Which one would you want leading your country?
In fact, the shitty ones usually proceeded the great ones. Several of the darkest times in American history were precipitated by extremely bad presidents. Although some sort of confrontation between the North and South was probably inevitable, the slave states' succession was virtually guaranteed by the successively sucky presidencies of Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. If Buchanan had been president for another four years, the Southern states might very well have just waltzed out of the Union.

Instead, we got Abraham Lincoln — maybe the perfect man for that time and place, and probably our greatest president. Some argue that men are called to greatness by great challenges, that many other presidents could have done as well as Lincoln in his place. Buchanan and Pierce say otherwise. As does the man who followed Lincoln: Andrew Johnson, another of our worst presidents.

The Great Depression was as great a crisis as the Civil War. And like the Civil War, it was worsened by the ineffective leadership of Herbert Hoover. Had Franklin Delano Roosevelt not followed Hoover in the White House, our entire system of government might have fallen apart. At a time when we needed perseverance, courage and vision, FDR provided those in spades. Like Lincoln, he was the man we needed to lead the United States through both the Depression and the Second World War.

It feels like we're at another one of those points. The threats to America aren't as simply labeled as "civil war" or "economic collapse" this time. We're facing a rising tide of anti-Americanism in the world, spearheaded by a religious movement that would like nothing better than to send civilization back to the 10th Century. Russia is making a sideways dash back at dictatorship. China and India are revving up for a run at American economic hegemony. Global warming may be on its way to a global catastrophe, and we're making it worse as we continue to guzzle a vanishing resource which is, what do you know, controlled by those aforementioned religious crazies.

And like previous dark days, we are stuck with a government which is simply not up to the challenge. The Bush administration and its Republican-controlled Congress are fundamentally unserious about governing at a time when we face threats that may be more dire than any of the past few generations. For all his talk about the dangers of Islamic terrorism, Bush has done precious little to attack the problem at its roots.

A first step is for the opposition party to retake one or more houses of Congress in November. But the Democrats will spend most of the next few years simply trying to check Bush's power grabs and undo some of his worst excesses. While they wrangle, Rome burns.

To succeed in the coming years, America needs someone who will honestly talk to the nation about the threats we face and ask us to sacrifice to surmount those threats. That kind of transformative leadership must always come from the presidency. What will we do if we get the kind sort of business-as-usual president we've had for most of U.S. history? What if democracy fails to cough up the leader we need?

It's impossible to know where that leadership might come from, but the names being floated for 2008 don't inspire a lot of confidence. Hillary Clinton. Rudi Giuliani. George Allen. John Kerry. Newt Gingrich. Jeb freaking Bush.

A few others might be better. John McCain, if he can truly be the truth-telling rebel he claims to be, rather than just a Republican who likes to feud with his party occasionally. Al Gore has certainly shown us something over the last several months.

But I'm holding out hope for something better. So far, it has been the genius of our system to provide us with just the leader we need just when we need him. So let's keep our eyes open. After all, our greatest president was a relative newcomer to the national political scene who made his name in Illinois politics and gained fame on the strength of his great oration. You never know where one of those might turn up again.


Anonymous P. Pirx said...

Well, I, for once, would be much interested to see some reasonable suggestions about attacking the terrorism problem "at its roots". With a stress on "reasonable", not platitudes.

Blogger Chance-86 said...

Tough one to really analyze for me, Buck. You have hit on 2 or 3 themes that I would love to spend some serious time delving into.

For lack of time, I want to really look at one point that has captured my attention more than once: Succession from the Union by the Confederate States.

Now, I admit that I'm not much of a pragmatist in life, but it's difficult not to be a pragmatist as you view history. If for no other reason, because there is no way to know what the end result would have been had, say, Lincoln not won the election or if Kennedy had blown up the silos in Cuba. We like the world that we live in, so we don't question the "what-ifs."
Well, maybe normal peopple don't. I, on the other hand, do.... I have a tendancy to be an extremist in my politcal leanings. On issues that I am conservative on, I am very conservative. On issues that I am left-wing on, I am so far left that I nearly fall off. So I have looked at Lincoln and the succession from two very different viewpoints through the years. Now, don't crucify me until you hear me out...But I think that the wrong side won the Civil War. Ultimately, I don't believe that the Union had the authority to stop the succession. I mean, obviously they did if you look at it militarily, but what about Constitutionally? I believe in State's rights. I don't believe that our forefathers ever intended for the government to grow to the size and bureaucracy that we have today. The constition never empowered the government with the powers that it takes upon itself on a daily basis. Had the Confederacy won the war, then state's rights would have been preserved, at least in the southern states. Sounds crazy, but what right does our government have to restrict our rights and actions...usually based on the latest religious fervor?? It's crazy! The three basic funtions of the government outlined in the constitution have been replaced by about 300,000. Governemnt in control of Education? sounded great, but how's that working? Government in control of our Retirement? again, sounded great, but how's it working? Social programs up the wa-zoo. We've become more socialistic than Germany was in 1939. The government was never supposed to have the authority that we have given it. Had the South won, the power would have resided at the State level, where distribution of tax-monies would have been more efficient, and more resident-specific. Because of state's rights, I have no doubt that each state would have diversified to a far greater extreme than it has now. Utah would probably have legalized monogamy, California would have legal same-sex marriage, and Illinois would make it legal to vote after death, as long as it is in Cook county. But so what? Then your tax dollars go to support what you most believe in. Don't like same-sex marriage? then move to Texas. The Federal Government's control and purpose is limited.
Lincoln a good President? ok. But man, Succession was the key, and we missed it.

Blogger Buck B. said...

I'm going to write more later about the Bush administration's utter lack of a cohesive foreign policy, but in the meantime here's Buck's hand-dandy guide to defeating Islamofasicm:

1.) Solve the Palestinian problem.
Seriously, what the fuck is Bush doing about this? Israel and Gaza are essentially in a open state of war, and nary a peep has been heard from the American government. Can we please start seeing some leadership here?

2.) Walk the democracy walk that you talk
I wonder how Muslims living in Saudi Arabia or Egypt feel when they hear Bush spout off about Democracy. Hosni Mubarak has worked a neat little trick — he's violently suppressed all opposition except that of the Islamists, so he can say to Bush "Look, if I allow free elections, you're just going to have the same thing as the Palestinians. Do you want Hamas in charge of Egypt too?"

And he has a point. We can't let Islamists gain control of any more countries. But democracy isn't just about free elections. Let's work on transparency in government and respect for individual rights and and see what happens.

3.) Develop some sort of Marshall Plan for the Muslim world.
Besides one ill-fated and badly planned excursion, we just sat back and twiddled our thumbs for a decade while Somalia was the only country on Earth without at least some sort of functioning government. Now we have Islamic fundamentalists instituting Sharia law and likely providing safe haven for terrorists. A little more time and money, and a much larger set of balls, and we wouldn't be where we are.

Similarly, if we'd put a small fraction of the money into Afghanistan we've put into Iraq, we might not be facing a flourishing opium crop and the Taliban resurgent in the south.

4.) Stop invading Arab countries and killing large numbers of their citizens.

Blogger Buck B. said...

Well Chance, one way to look at the Civil War is as a referendum on the very idea that you're talking about — was the United States established as a loose affiliation of separate entities or as a unified nation?

Whatever you think of the result, Lincoln certainly ended that debate. In fact, I think he made it retroactive — the defeat of succession meant that the South did not have the right to leave the Union, and never did. Winners write the history books and all that.

And thank God for that. Since its inception, America has existed as much as an idea as a country: E pluribus unum. Out of many, one. For all our problems, we've managed to piece together a great nation out of many disparate parts while the rest of the world has fractured into smaller and smaller pieces. I'm willing to accept some government bloat in exchange for the chance to provide an example to the world that a nation like ours is really possible.

Besides, I love lording it over the French that we have citizens of every size, shape and color but they can't handle a few French-speaking Muslims.

Oh, and Mero and I both love what-ifs. Expect to see a lot of them here.

Blogger Chance-86 said...

errrr...try the word polygamy instead.

Anonymous P. Pirxx said...

Hmm, Buck, where does one begin? Let's see.

1) Solve the Palestinian problem.

You mean as in "hold press conferences at the Rose Garden and hope for the best. Has been tried already:-)

A conflict between two nations is resolved either when both sides want it to be resolved (little evidence for this here) or when one of the sides is utterly crashed (and thus the conflict is eliminated). Baring this, a conflict can be temporarily supressed (though not resolved) through the physiucal intervention of far greater power which is willing to use all force necessary to keep both sides quiet. So, what is it that you're prepared to do here.

2) Walk the democracy walk that you talk.

Not clear what you mean here. Is it that the US should now also forcefully intervene in Egypt and Saudi Arabia to create a democracy there. Or is it that you belief that working on more transparency in government and respect for individual rights in the US will somehow make the Islamists see the light. If it is the second, I can assure you that the level of both transparency in government and respect of individual rights, in the US, is not only beyond anything existing in any Arab country, but even beyond anything that people there can imagine. So?

3) Marshall Plan for the Arab world:

Well, here it is a mix. On the narrow issue, yes, I agree that the withdrawal from Somalia was ill thought and that it did contribute to the present predicament, by helping to convince Islamists that the US doesn't have the guts to fight (Bin_laden's own words, not mine). Kinda amazing, the power the Bush administration has, being able to engineer this withdrawal 7 years before actually coming to power (you do appear to be laying this on their doorstep, don't you?:-)).

Beyond this, on the broader notion of a Marshall Plan, lets consider: Some 50 years ago the standard of living in S. Korea or Taiwan was about the same as it was (then) in Egypt or Iraq. Today, there is simply no comparison. And these Pacific Rim countries have no natural resources and enjoyed no inflow of money from the outside, other than this earned by the labor of their citizens. During the same time, the Arab world enjoyed an inflow of trillions of dollars of unearned money ("unearned" as they didn't have to work for it). Assuming some minimal reinvestement in the local economy, the whole area should be blooming. But, in reality, most people there are as poor as before (whith the exception of some countries so small that the scraps remaining after all the crooks took their share still suffice for a decent living for the rest).

And you would expect that throwing some more money into this mess will change things?

4) Stop invading Arab countries etc.

There is such little thing called "causality". I would suggest to look up the word and to note the 9/11 happened before Arab countries were invaded.

So, if that would be all ...

Blogger Josh Rohrscheib said...

Buck -

I'd really like to see a post doing an in depth analysis of the chances of the dems retaking both houses. You could do it in 2 parts, do the senate first b/c it should be a lot easier to figure out (half as many seats and all). I'd be happy to help you with this if you'd like.

If nothing else we'd have an aid when we all start making bets on the november elections.

Blogger Mandasaurus said...

Let me give you a hint about John McCain - he can say he's a boat-rocker or a maverick or a watermelon - all day long. But he's a republican senator. He showboats, he picks fights with people who get more attention than he does, and he'd be our oldest president ever!

Anonymous J said...

Blah blah blah, I hate Bush, blah blah blah, it's the end of the world.

For all the talk of a need for monumental change, you could probably do a better job in explaining the crisis than words like "it feels." I can't seem to recall why anyone should care about anti-Americanism.

I think this country is at its worst moment in history, an honor that was previously occupied by the previous moment. The reason isn't because Iran hates us or whatever Mr. Progressive's Crazy Manifesto says. It's because we have a government that continues to get bigger and bigger and a checks and balances system that is broken.

We should expect government to get bigger inasmuch as we expect the things we drop to fall. But the checks and balances have been impermissibly eroded in part because of a court system that likes to play politics.

Additionally, we have congressional re-districting that has kept the lid on popular choice and free speech suppression laws championed by your beloved Feingold and McCain that have made Congress virtually immune from constituent displeasure.

Now I know you don't really give a shit about the state of America and what's right in order to maintain principles of democracy and liberty. If you did, you wouldn't be wishing for the nostaliga days of the big government birthing of FDR. No, you'd just rather have your side be the one that erodes our civil liberities. You can't expect anyone to take seriously the man who resents those who would steal he claim to infamy.

And while Barack might be the man for you, I think I'll pass on his brand of "we're from the government, and we're here to help" politics.

Blogger Buck B. said...

Anti-Americanism matters because foreign investors own about 44 percent ($2 trillion) of U.S. government debt.

Anti-Americanism matters because oil is at about $78 a barrel and mostly controlled by governments that don't like us.

Anti-Americanism matters because the trade deficit for 2006 is already over $400 billion.

Anti-Americanism matters because it is why were were attacked on Sept. 11 and why we will be attacked again.

The world is going to hell in a handbasket right before our eyes, in large part because of Bush's disastrously inept foreign policy. The days when America was self-sufficient and could hunker down inside its borders are gone forever.

I believe I've stated my views about the current state of American democracy in this post and the ensuing comments.

Do you have a point here, J? Or is this just free-form whining about big government?

I agree that bureaucracy is and will continue to be the greatest threat to our civil liberties, and I'd like to see the federal government reduced to about half its current size. But without the "big government birthing of FDR" we would not be living in the United States as we know it today, and to pretend that the New Deal was a bad thing reveals a profound lack of understanding about the real dangers the Depression posed to democracy.

I'm glad some people live in a libertarian fantasy land where magically shrinking the federal government into a baseball-sized nugget tomorrow would solve all our problems. But the rest of us live in reality and have to deal with a world that requires solutions the private sector is not capable of delivering.

More to the point, six years of one-party Republican rule has shown us that big government is not going anywhere anytime soon. So rather than whining about it, lets propose some concrete suggestions for reducing its scope, increasing its efficiency and better directing its use.

Blogger Buck B. said...

P. PIrx —

I'm not going to respond to your individual points. I don't pretend to have be a foreign policy expert; those were simply some off-the-cuff suggestions.

My point is to provide an example of what a coherent foreign policy might look like. In ten minutes, most people could probably come up with a better plan than the Green Lantern theory of geopolitics Bush is apparently operating under.

Anonymous J said...


What world do you live in?

Do you think foreign investors buy up American debt because they like America, or want to make money? Which seems more likely?

Do you think the price of gas is high because the cartel doesn't like America, or because it wants to make money? Which seems more likely?

Do you think the trade deficit has anything to do with anti-Americanism, or because people want to make money? Which seems more likely?

(I'd add that in our history, periods of trade deficits came at times of economic prosperity. Inded, trade deficits are hardly a bad thing)

Do you think terrorists are individuals who should be placated?

The New Deal was, and continues to be, a bad thing. For a quick overview, this is pretty good.

And while I understand the rest of your audience might be smitten with your "real world" expertise, I happen to live in the same "real world," and I think my preferred policies would work better. I'm not sure we're going to get anywhere by alleging the other side lives on the Moon.

As for problems the private sector can't solve, well, we know which problems those are. You'll find them in just about any introductory microeconomics textbook. I'll give you a couple of insights - farm subsidies, administration of education, and investment services are not among them.

I wholeheartedly agree that Republicans are terrible abusers of government power, and the longer they've held power in Washington, the worse it's gotten. However, that should not lead one to simply elect Democrats as the de facto solution. Indeed, there are plenty of political parties out there. One which at least promises to reduce the tyranny of government might be a preferable option. I don't see that in either of the two parties.

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