Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Tag: Bush

Resurrecting the idea of Humanitarian Interventions

Christopher Hitchens on North Korea:

Here are the two most shattering facts about North Korea. First, when viewed by satellite photography at night, it is an area of unrelieved darkness. Barely a scintilla of light is visible even in the capital city. (See this famous photograph.) Second, a North Korean is on average six inches shorter than a South Korean. You may care to imagine how much surplus value has been wrung out of such a slave, and for how long, in order to feed and sustain the militarized crime family that completely owns both the country and its people.

But this is what proves Myers right. Unlike previous racist dictatorships, the North Korean one has actually succeeded in producing a sort of new species. Starving and stunted dwarves, living in the dark, kept in perpetual ignorance and fear, brainwashed into the hatred of others, regimented and coerced and inculcated with a death cult: This horror show is in our future, and is so ghastly that our own darling leaders dare not face it and can only peep through their fingers at what is coming.

While the Iraqi people have suffered due to the Bush Administrations botching of the invasion of Iraq, it is the people of the world who are still in abject dictatorship which have suffered the most. Designed as a giant confidence play to strike fear and the necessity of submission into dictators world wide, its controversy, bungling and cost have instead given ultimate re-assurance. Among the dead lies the idea of Humanitarian Interventions, a liberal idea of cautious military use to protect individuals, turned into a conservative rock tune of freedom and change by mid-afternoon.

While there were mistakes and setbacks in the 1990’s (in particular Clinton’s and other democratic leaders significant over-estimation of public unwillingness accept the loss of life towards such aims), progress had been made in establishing the idea as a viable policy option, with mechanisms and even discussion of standing forces to be dedicated towards the task rising. But that option has been fundamentally damaged, and the discussion returned to a taboo, both by liberals who now fear the underlying motives of any self-professed moral activity by government/the military and conservatives who either don’t see any rewards (those ungrateful iraqis!) or now out of office have re-found their worry about military over-reach and the power of government to affect societal change.

None of this is to say that we should invade North Korea, or that they’d be free were it not for Bush (obviously not). But the option for policy makers has been removed from the table, and is awkwardly side-stepped when brought up in polite company or the halls of academia and foreign policy commentators. Even now, nearly 7 years on from Iraq, the wounds are still too raw for us to escape the inevitable comparison: If you advocate humanitarian invasion you’re a Neo-Con with hidden imperialist motives, if you argue a better society can be brought about, few see anything but images of suicide bombs and IED’s filling their imagination.

Appropriately implemented Humanitarian Intervention I would argue is a fundamental element of a peaceful, democratic world society. Implementing the norm of Sovereignty in 17th century Europe may have brought us freedom from religious wars (well largely) but we also need to ensure that governments can no longer hide behind the security of their own borders to avoid responsibility for their crimes against their citizens and humanity at large. Many countries make the shift to democracy on their own, but some stubborn few have to be blasted out. Until we can return to a discussion about even that possibility (again in the context of full discussion and needing an appropriate process such as UN authorization) then the oppressed, shrinking slaves of places like North Korea will continue to suffer alone and in the dark.

Transparent Panic

I wrote last year that foreign policy disputes occur through events typically out of the hands of leaders, (ie that Rudd can’t make the 2010 election be about foreign policy in the way he can force a poll on Climate Change), but that rule really only applies to democracies:

Iran’s hardline president has ordered the formation of a team to study the damages the country suffered from the 1941 Allied invasion in order to demand compensation.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran suffered immensely after it was invaded by Britain and the Soviet Union during World War II despite its declared neutrality and was never compensated.”A team has been assigned to calculate all the damages (inflicted on Iran) in the Second World War. This will be an invoice they (Allies powers) must pay to the Iranian nation,” he said in remarks broadcast live on state television on Saturday.
“You inflicted lots of damages to the Iranian nation, put your weight on the shoulders (of the Iranian people) and became victors in the World War II. You didn’t even share the war profits with Iran,” Ahmadinejad said. “If I say today that we will take full compensation … know that we will stand to the end and will take it.”
Ahmadinejad also warned that Iran may also demand compensation for the damages it suffered during World War I, the Western support for the former Pahlavi Dynasty and its hostility towards Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

It’s not often you see leaders of nation states come up with such transparent diversionary policy efforts. No money will be paid, no attention (beyond the media hoping like Iran for a conflict) will be given, and this event will be utterly forgotten in two weeks let alone when it comes time to sum up 2010 in late december. But it is indicative of the panic within the Iranian leadership. To be sure the opposition green movement is leaderless, and divided on whether it wants to simply reform the theocracy or really revolt Iran into a new democratic era. However the legitimacy of the leadership is utterly gone.

For all that International Relations is dictated by calculations of material power, (how many nukes does that country have, who controls the military etc), intangibles such as legitimacy are often far more critical over the long term. In the last 20 years democracy rose, communism fell, a wall came down, and the US appeared to be weaken by a bunch of islamic fundamentalists all because of issues of legitimacy rather than any mathematical material calculation of power. The Iranian government has the guns, but it is clearly panicking and will end up selling out its young (as likely as revolution is the dismissal of Ahmadinejad) to keep in power. Long term, it is hard to see how the 1979 Islamic Revolution lasts beyond the next 5-10 years, and that is even assuming they get the bomb.

Bush’s wish to ‘drain the swamp’ with falling dominoes of democracy may yet come about. He may have got much of the implementation wrong, but I think he saw the end game better than many of his critics.

Why we need to forget WW2

This is a rather unique use of the far-too-commonly invoked analogy of Hitler’s Nazi Germany to modern times:

The [proposed WA] legislation would allow police to search people for weapons and drugs in areas such as Northbridge without having to prove grounds of suspicion.
Last night Liberal backbencher Peter Abetz spoke in support of the legislation and used the example of Hitler.
He said the dictator gained support because he provided people security in a time of anarchy.
“When it comes to the crunch, people prefer to be safe than to have freedom,” he said

I didn’t want to post this on the 11th, as it is important that every society set aside at least one day (Australia also has ANZAC day) where they pause to remember and honour those who served their country. Whether they spent only a few months on the home front, or years if not the last moments of their life in the horrors of battle, we owe it to them and to those in uniform today to do so. If anything this was made even more poignant by the senseless murder of 13 US servicemen by a man whose day job was to heal their wounds. This November 11th marks 64 years since WW2, a fight which is the most wrongly but commonly invoked analogy in western political dialogue and political thinking, and one we urgently need to move on from.

Comparing current events to The Nazification of Germany, the appeasement of Hitler, and of course the horror of the Holocaust is the nuclear option of public discourse in the west (especially the Anglo-sphere). But more than just odiously affecting our dialog, and dividing us internally, it affects our strategic thinking, putting us at risk externally. Since the turn of the century, there have been four major comparisons of current events with Hitler’s Germany, all factually inaccurate, and all to the greater harm of the society.

1) Bush is like Hitler in pushing the Patriot Act in response to 9/11

Unlike the Reichstag fire, 9/11 most certainly wasn’t an inside job. Terrorism was a very real and still present threat to the USA. Similar legislation to the Patriot Act was introduced in many other Western states around the world, though even that didn’t prevent terrorist attacks in Madrid and London. Bush’s acts were certainly invasive and the argument can be strongly made that it was an over-reaction, but it was a legitimate response to help protect his society. Something that has evidently worked in that there have not been any terrorist attacks inside the USA since 9/11. The left instantly delegitimised itself by making the analogy and destroyed it’s capacity to sensibly contribute to and moderate the legislation.

Net effect = Less political influence, stronger public support for measures they rejected. Legislation is still in place.

2) Iraq/Iran is akain to Nazi Germany and ought not to be appeased.

While Bush was the victim of a false the Nazi analogy in early 2002, he was quick to invoke it against his enemies by late 2002/2003 as he lead the Coalition of the Willing to invade Iraq. Any and all who opposed, in the US, UK, Australia, and especially France and Germany were seen as akin to appeasing Hitler in their rejection of removing Saddam Hussein. Saddam was just as odious personally as Adolf, and terrorised Iraqi society, but Hitler in 1939 was a threat because of the strength of the German army. WMD or no WMD, Hussein was a contained threat. Strategically invading Iraq was a massive blunder, wasting blood and treasure for almost no comparative security benefit to the major coalition partners.
In this case, the desire to positively emulate WW2 (in playing Churchill and correctly foreseeing looming threats) was as, if not more damaging than the negative comparison, of our enemies to Hitler. This is the ultimate problem with the analogy to WW2. It can not be made positively, or negatively with good sense these days.
The more recent, though far more low key comparisons of Iran to Germany in 1939 have largely been dismissed because of the failure of the Iraqi comparison, but they refuse to go away. (Or perhaps it’s due to the fact Iran has 1/68th of the army of the US). The rhetoric used against opponents of the war (or proposed action on Iran) is ugly, however the way the comparison has damaged and perverted the way the premier military nation in the world, and defender of the west conducts itself is inexcusable.

Net Effect = 4300 dead US soldiers in Iraq (with another 300 of allies, and 50-100’000 Iraqis), and about $1 Trillion spent, with more to come. The US has wasted its perceived unipolar moment, and is very restricted in the future conduct of its troops against threats such as Iran/North Korea, and the larger strategic game of China/Russia et all.

3) Climate Change Deniers are akain to Holocaust Deniers

This comparison has popped up in recent months, including by authors I previously respected. Even if the worst-case scenarios for Climate Change are true, they do not in any way mirror the insidious nature of the Holocaust. One deliberate, the other unexpected (with those responsible now attempting to solve it). One was industrialized and clinical, the other natural and unpredictable. One has happened, the other yet to, with a possibility of preventing the harm without actually stopping the problem.

Worse, given that there already are perceptions that the horror and trouble of Climate Change has been overplayed, the decision to deploy the most strident possible denunciation possible at this time has simply re-enforced the perception advocates were not driven by the science but other unrelated factors. The effect of such a claim has not persuaded anyone to change their view, and divided the two camps, re-enforcing the energy of denialists who see this as one-more-battle.This analogy unfortunately is going to be rolled out more and more in the future. It’s bad rhetoric, bad history, and divides our society right at the time it needs to pull together to address this serious issue.

Net Effect = Nothing yet, but if (and perhaps when) Copenhagen fails to reach agreement, and cap & trade systems falter in the legislature in the UK, USA and Australia, it will be in part because supporters hyperbole managed to destroy the good will of many cautious supporters who would have given bipartisan support to this policy.

4) Obama introducing Healthcare is akain to the Nazification of Germany.

This is perhaps the most laughable of them all. The Nazi party despised the idea of social welfare, taking a strictly Social Darwinists approach to society. Hitler’s Mein Kampf demonises charity and philanthropy as evils to be eliminated for a stronger Germany. Political fixes to maintain their domestic control were of course introduced, largely along the lines of what the Weimar Republic had pursued. The party may have been named the National Socialists, but actual Socialists and communists were amongst the chief enemies of the Nazis (which is why many conservatives in the west liked Hitler). These comparisons between Obamacare and Hitler have been made by media figures, congressmen, culminating in this odious picture at a recent event, which has fortunately been rejected by at least some in the Republican caucus.

Net Effect = As I noted a few weeks ago, the debate on Healthcare turned in Democrats favour in August when Conservatives were actually at their loudest in demonising the proposal at town halls. The legislation should hopefully pass (though will be a weak compromise), but the effect has not been limited to health care. The willingness to deploy the analogy in relation to healthcare has spread to other issues as well, damaging the political fabric of the US’s democratic system. Good will has been utterly destroyed between the parties, the dialog debased, and the people cynically turned into service by people whose motives are more personal gain than anything else.


I was going to quote Churchill’s great line that the people of the Balkan’s had “more history than they could consume”. But such is the effect of Churchill on our western psyche that its even easy to bring to mind quotes of him to say we shouldn’t listen to him anymore! That we shouldn’t memoralise and hero-worship the west’s victory, or demonise modern enemies as like those he faced. As an avid reader of history I know no better source of personal development than reading history books, and yet every generation also deserves the chance to forget what has come before so it may remake and explore new potentials. If history’s lessons were never breakable we would never had had the rise of the church, nor that of the nation-state, nor international organisations. Each of these changes occurred through the acts of a generation that was willing to deliberately ignore the lessons of the past and push for a new future

It’s time to honour, and for the good of those involved, and those yet to come, return WW2 to the history books.

Picture by peterme used under a Creative Commons Licence

Donald Rumsfelds big day

Yesterday on July 1 2009, Iraq experienced the second of it’s three major steps towards sovereignty.Today is rightly being held as a great victory for Barack Obama. But one person will also be smiling along side him today: Donald Rumsfeld.

The first major step towards a free Iraq occurred on June 28th 2004. It was intended for June 30 like this venture, but had to be moved two days earlier and presided over inside the Green Zone, such was the fear of insurgent attacks. On that day, Paul Bremer head consul of the Coalition Provisional Authority transferred authority to an all Iraqi, though appointed interim government under Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. On the right you can see President Bush’s reaction to the news, in a note passed by Condolezza Ricebush_let freedom reign

Over the next few years there was an uneasy dynamic. Iraqi’s began voting in their own leaders, yet it was ostensibly US troops who provided the security, stability, and in some cases operated the basic infrastructure that kept the country running. It was certainly US money that turned the electricity back on, and re-bought Iraq a place in regional and world trade. But whilst all agree’d that the troops were needed, there were many great debates as to how to best use them. Indeed the now famous term “surge” is a misnomer. What was critical about the 2007 efforts was less the addition of a small number more of US troops, but the change in how all troops were to be used in the country. The US employed several strategies over the years of occupation:

As infamously acknowledged the first few days in Iraq after Saddam were chaotic and lawless. US troops viewed themselves as liberators and were not going to shoot ‘free’ Iraqi’s for venting their frustration against the former buildings of their tormentor or helping themselves to it’s resources (indeed so much copper wiring was stripped from the buildings of the Iraqi government that the price of copper in the region went down!). Eventually Jay Garner & the Neocons imagined Iraqi founding fathers never materialized and US dreams of a handover within the year were given up. US soldiers then got down to the business of providing security in the country. There was great differentiation during this period in how particular units approached that task. Some, especially special forces troops integrated heavily into the local population hoping to bring the locals on side and keep out the insurgents. Other commanders sought to keep their troops in the big bases as much as possible, reducing the ‘footprint’ of the troops and giving Iraqi’s an impression of independence.

For most of the period of 2004 to 2006 the ‘light footprint’ approach won out. But curiously it was not actually the supported view of US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld felt, (like many neocons, though they couldn’t say it too loudly) that the presence of US troops in Iraq was denying the Iraqi’s the necessary motivations to take over control of their own security and country. Drawing on a domestic analogy, Rumsfeld felt that US troops were keeping the new nation infantile and dependent. Bush recognised that US troops could not simply leave Iraq during this period (50-100 US soldiers were dying every month in this period). Resigned to keeping troops in Iraq, (When it comes to a desire to leave Iraq, the anti-war movement has nothing on the inner Bush Administrations unrelenting desire to get out of Iraq as quickly as possible) the troops were kept in their bases and sent out only occasionally on patrol in heavily armored and armed vehicles, or in large numbers so as to dissuade any and all from thoughts of attack.

In late 2006 when the death toll number was closer to 80-120 a month for US troops, the US adminstration decided on a new tactic. It had become convinced (in large part through the under appreciate efforts of Condolezza Rice) to move towards a “take, hold, rebuild” strategy. Following the US Congressional elections, Donald Rumsfeld was unceremoniously fired, taking with him his still earnest belief that the presence of US troops in Iraq was preventing Iraqis from ‘stepping up’ and taking control of their own country. The Surge brought in General Petraeus, and coincided with the USA’s first real lucky break, the Sunni Awakening where Iraqi Tribal leaders began to switch sides and support the USA. This brought sudden and real gains in security, and with the new counter-insurgency doctrine in hand, the US troops moved back amongst the Iraqi population, driving insurgents and terrorists from the cities and bringing some security (For a good account check out David Kilcullen’s new book Accidental Guerrilla. He was effectively Petraeus’s n#2 in authoring the strategy, and yet as an academically trained Australian is able to offer a sober, informed judgement on the period’s successes and mistakes).

President Obama famously opposed the war in Iraq, declaring that “I don’t oppose all wars. And I know that in this crowd today, there is no shortage of patriots, or of patriotism. What I am opposed to is a dumb war” (The line about patriotism is noteworthy, -placed right in the middle of perhaps his key soundbite-, such was the fear all shared of being called unpatriotic or treasonous for not supporting the invasion of Iraq back in late 2002). When Obama took office in 2009, he made one of his first priorities for US troops to leave Iraq, beginning with a withdrawal from US cities, beginning on July 1. While Obama championed this move, it was actually codified under the dying days of the Bush Administration’s State of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Iraq. (So look out for any hypocritical/ignorant Republican attacks on Obama and the withdrawal).

After numerous revisions, Donald Rumsfeld’s ideal is finally seeing it’s implementation. US forces are pulling out of the major cities, with a full withdrawal scheduled (with some wiggle room for circumstances) by the end of 2011. Now we will finally be able to see if the NeoCon’s assumptions about humanities eternal yearning to be free will lead Iraqi’s to risk themselves for their country, or instead turn inwards and seek (as many did in 2003-2004) alternate sources of protection (tribes, gangs, mercenaries) whilst their country burns. Today there are 500’000 very Brave Iraqi Police and 250’000 equally brave Iraqi soldiers responsible for the security and safety of the population and Government. The differences in quality, equipment and training vary widely amongst these forces. Only some will ever meet the standards we in the west expect for our troops and police, but perhaps it will be enough. As David Kilcullen delights in pointing out, local troops not only dont have that stigma of occupation, but their very presence at home and off duty is it’s own form of counter-insurgency at work. Whilst US troops need to be rotated regularly and require 5x their number to cook, communicate, co-ordinate and supply. It is burdensome, costly and slow, all the while an Iraqi policeman simply returns to his home each night, discouraging by his mere presence anti-government or insurgent forces, and knowing far far more about the local dynamics that are so crucial to ensuring law and order (advantages as basic as simply speaking the language which far far too few US soldiers ever learnt).

Already 33 people have been killed in the new post-US Iraq. There will sadly, be many, many more. But perhaps this now truly begins to mark the emergence of an Iraq, just like any other country with it’s own issues and problems to deal with, rather than a major international conflict and distracting challenge for a superpower tasked with so much else in the world today. It also raises once again within me those conflicted feelings of how to understand and position myself on the question of the war as a whole. I have never wrestled with a decision as much as I did that to support or oppose the invasion of Iraq. I eventually came down on the negative, feeling that while Iraq probably had some old decrepit WMD (i was wrong), it wasn’t enough of a threat, and worse would distract the US from the fight against terrorism and provide a massive properganda boost for the enemy.

iraq fingersAnd yet as I look at pictures of Iraqi’s voting, I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t something deeply noble about the whole misguided adventure too. There is a universal desire for self-determination, which the tyrant Saddam Hussein brutally suppressed amongst his people for over 20 years. American boys and girls have given their lives in far too high a number, and American tax payers have paid (and will continue paying) a tremendous cost so that the people of Iraq might have that same freedom they enjoy. All the conspiracy theorists who made the anti-war movement so repellent have been proven frauds. The oil was not stolen, muslim’s have been protected not slaughtered, the US isn’t setting up a regional launchpad for taking over the region. All are lies. The US in it’s shaggy dog style risked much in staggeringly naieve idealism, seeking to pass their great inheritance to all denied it around the world. It bounded into Iraq, smiled and then wondered why it was not able to simply bounce out with applause. Nation building however is perhaps the toughest task imaginable to mankind, one we continually fail at, and in this the Bush Administration was both the only group willing and the group least qualified to undertake such a mission. Those great voices for Humanitarian Intervention at the end of the 1990’s almost universally disagreed with the effort, but what else can you call it?. Certainly such idea’s have taken a heavy body blow, particularly on the left as domestic politics and anger over-rides long held principles. Should the war now be supported in hindsight ? I dont know. I still think it a mistake, but boy it’s hard not to be taken by the enthusiasm and bravery shown by Iraqi’s to make their country into a flowering democratic, modern nation deep within a region still beset by medieval views, and a history of harsh authoritarianism and crack downs. I wish them the greatest of luck. They will certainly need it.

Bush and Democracy

Kevin Drum makes a similar comment I hear from lefties regularly:

Bush always struck me as less serious about democracy than his predecessors. To him it was a nice slogan — every American politician is in favor of democracy, after all — but anyone who’s serious about democracy knows that it’s not the kind of thing you can get overnight. It depends critically on education, on institutions, on culture, on overcoming corruption, on property rights, on the rule of law, and a dozen other things. None of these were things that Bush ever seemed to have the patience to bother dealing with.

Yet, notice the way Drum makes his case. Bush’s seriousness is dictated by his patience and support for lots of significant little pieces of policy change. Exactly the type of approach he hopes and foresees the Obama administration taking:

The Obama wing of liberalism, conversely, seems to see democracy promotion as small ball: lots of hard slogging, lots of public diplomacy, and lots of minor initiatives that fly under the radar and don’t produce dramatic moments to rally around.

Obviously it’s worth treating with skepticism anyone who claims lots, but doesn’t seem to do the hard work for it. Yet this approach somewhat fails because it assesses Bush as if a pragmatic liberal who spoke of promoting democracy but was lazy. Yet Bush’s ideas for democracy are of a very different nature.

Take the issue of why there is terrorism at all. At the heart of the Bush Administrations efforts to change the Middle East was an acknowledgment that the US had failed the people of the Arab world. As Condoleezza Rice said in June 2005 in her own great speech in Cairo:

For 60 years, the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East — and we achieved neither.
Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.

Bush's comment on learning Iraq was soverign in 2004

Bush's comment in black on learning Iraq was self-governing in 2004

It was not that Bush and Rice said terrorism was blowback for poor US policy, or a sign that they hated us for our freedom, but instead that the Arab world instead wanted to be more like us, and we had chosen realism-driven stability over their desire for democracy and freedom. Everyone wanted democracy, and if the US had done anything wrong, it was to fail to realise how strongly everyone else favoured it too. Democracy was not seen as a rational way to organise societies that helps moderate concerns over social justice and recognition in ways that curb extremism (as liberal advocates might put it), but it was what the people wanted and what the US had failed to deliver.

Following on from this, Bush therefore seemed not to see his job not as promoting and building democracy, but clearing out impediments to democracy. The classic case is Iraq. As far as he was concerned the key job of the US was to remove the dictator Saddam who had for too long held the people in fear and tyranny. Once he was removed, the people would naturally gravitate towards democratic forms of organisation. Remember Bush is not someone who see’s democracy as merely an option for governance. As his 2002 National Security Strategy declared in its very first lines:

The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a
decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success:
freedom, democracy, and free enterprise.

Read that again. A “single sustainable model”. There Is literally no alternative in the Bush world view. (And indeed does anyone really dispute that there is a compelling alternative?) As such Democracy was a natural process that all free people would embrace, the US did not have to spend it’s time focusing on jobs like writing laws, building institutions or holding democracy classes. The Iraqi’s would do this themselves.

Of course this is a misreading not of democracy’s appeal (the Iraqis certainly wanted that), but of human society and governance. Bush was so used to stable successful countries that the difference he saw between the US and Iraq prior to the war amounted to the involvement of just one man: Saddam Hussein. Remove him and democracy would flower, without the US needing to be significantly involved. No other answer (such as an oil grab, incompetence or any other conspiracy) so clearly explains what happened following the end of the war, as that the Bush Administration thought that it’s goals and the Iraqi people’s goals were so aligned that once the bad guy was gone, the Iraqis would do the rest for themselves.

Democracy in short was not a goal to be built up slowly in the middle east, but the inevitable end to which the US had only to unlatch the gates & remove the blockages and it would flow over the region. Therefore to assess Bush’s seriousness in supporting democracy, against his engagement with small bits of policy that build democratic institutions and cultures is to misread him. It’s to analyse him as a realist. As the idealist he actually was, his invasion of Iraq is proof of his seriousness for democracy. Its just that there isn’t always a link between seriousness and success or even good sense.

Right now most are walking away from the concept of democracy promotion. Bush’s failure has tarred it’s good name for both liberals and conservatives. But that was because of how he went about it, not the worth of the goal itself. That hasn’t changed, and in some ways the Bushies are right that that failure to deliver on democracy really is crimp to the well being of the relation and positive views of the US. Just because we are criticizing the foolishness of the right wing Bush administration, doesn’t mean liberals should adopt or say Realist ideas that such promotion is always impossible or always doomed to fail. Things that, given a resurgence in energy and confidence in a few years time we may regret saying. In piling on, we need to be careful to repeat that democracy promotion is still a good thing, even if it was taken in a bad direction by an administration that was at once cynical, incompetent and authoritarian, yet also strangely naive and idealist about ideas such as democracy. Only by accepting that, does the strange pattern of the Bush Administration begin to make sense.

Psychology and Governance

When social historians look back at the first decade of the second millennium, they are likely to judge it an era of demand for hyper-respect. A generation of kids raised not on rote learning, but on the belief that self-confidence would make them all could be ran a muck on the streets, whilst in the White House old men demanded that the world pay them the respect they wanted:

Former Vice President Dick Cheney warned that there is a “high probability” that terrorists will attempt a catastrophic nuclear or biological attack in coming years, and said he fears the Obama administration’s policies will make it more likely the attempt will succeed…. “The United States needs to be not so much loved as it needs to be respected. Sometimes, that requires us to take actions that generate controversy. I’m not at all sure that that’s what the Obama adminstration believes.”

Such sentiments were a common refrain during the Bush Administration; most notably in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, designed to impress once and for all the creation of a New American Century. By invading Iraq, they hoped to show that America was to be always respected. That it would never bluff, never back down, and not accept contrary regimes. Respect was its by word and end goal. In this way, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and others brought to the hight of state power, a street like demand for power.

Cheney, and the street punks like him, want a system where they, and they alone have power. That is the end game of respect. Only one can be respected, it is not divisible or able to be partitioned. You are respected or you are not. And that is power.

Obama it seems, operates on a different understanding of power : Authority
Via Andrew Sullivan on the new presidents style:

If Bush was about the presidency as power, Obama is about the presidency as authority. It’s fascinating to watch this deep difference in understanding slowly but unmistakably realize itself in public actions…. This is an understanding of the president as one node in a constitutional order – not a near-dictator outside and superior to other branches of government.

As an authority, it is necessary to be one above many. Authority is meaningless unless in a social setting, unless in a system where others recognize your role in that setting.

That is the fundamental philosophical difference. Bush and Cheney still envisage a world where nation states are alone, in a brutal, Hobbsian world. Where every other competitor could be destoyed, and the power of your state would only be enhanced.

Obama however, lives in a world where nation states compete within a community. Where getting ahead, does not necessarily mean success at the expense of others. Obama, as the head of the most powerful and idealistic nation in the world is seeking authority. Authority to advance American ideals, protect American lives, preserve American industries.

From such a distant perspective as this bloggers keyboard, no final judgment can be offered. Cheney & co preserved US soil from further terrorist attacks for 7 years. But by every traditional calculation they made the country weaker and poorer. Less respected and more open for attack. Obama’s approach is new. It has yet to have time to work, yet to see any results (indeed we might not well into his second term). But in fundamentals, Obama’s ideal of power is different, in a way that his opponents will never recognize. Either Bush/Cheney are right; Or they will spend the next 5 years gasping and spluttering about the change and incomprehensibility of that change. Because of this fundamental divide about what power is, no public debate really is possible, between the former administration and the current. All over one little word.