January 24, 2005

Fools rush in (and get things done)

Mark Helprin has an essay in today's OpinionJournal that I find dubious. (Thanks to Alan Sullivan, who has his own thoughts)

Helprin writes: Our Blindness
We have ample forewarning. But will we ever act?

A hundred years ago, Republican presidential incumbent Theodore Roosevelt had just defeated the now obscure Judge Alton B. Parker, the army had long been fighting Muslim insurrectionists in the Philippines and was recasting itself to fight insurgencies, reformers were concerned with the environment and money politics, and the country's meat supply was viewed with suspicion.

Those absorbing passions would nonetheless prove completely irrelevant to the influenza pandemic that little more than a decade later would kill 50 million people, including half a million Americans; to the rise of Germany, Japan, and Russia; and to the century's three great wars....

We were not then preparing for the specific events Helprin mentions, but that would have taken a ludricous amount of foresight. No other countries were prepared for them either. BUT, America was doing a lot to prepare in a more general sense. Our preparations were NOT "irrelevent." We were creating prodigious national wealth that could be used for any need. Germany and Japan were "rising," but America was "rising" much faster (and none of those other countries were preparing for us!). We didn't foresee the pandemic, but public health and medical research were becoming increasingly important to us, and we were conquering other diseases. As for wars, were were building a world-class fleet, digging the canal, acquiring coaling stations around the globe, and vigorously preventing the encroachment of European empires in an entire hemisphere.

The real problem with Helprin's complaint is that these events were contingent. War with Germany, Japan and Russia were not inevitable, and any of these countries could have presented us with different problems, such as vigorous peaceful competition. Nor is it scientifically accepted that a flu pandemic was predictable—it is theorized that it may have arisen in the crowded hospitals of WWI, when the normal selective pressures that keep flu epidemics mild did not work.

...God help the army that must fight for an idea rather than an objective. After somehow failing to argue competently on behalf of a patently justifiable invasion, and as its more specious arguments were collapsing, the Bush administration then pivoted with breathtaking enthusiasm to nation building, something so Clinton-tinged that it had previously been held in contempt. The more that nation building in Iraq is in doubt, the more the mission creeps into a doubling of bets in hope of covering those that are lost. Now the goal is to reforge the politics, and perforce the culture, not merely of Iraq but of the billion-strong Islamic world from Morocco to the South Seas. That--evangelical democracy writ overwhelmingly large--is the manic idea for which the army must fight...

I think this is just wrong. Helprin is confusing the outward actions of the Administration with its actual plans. It was necessary to emphasize WMD's in order to get the UN on board, which was desirable for various reasons, such as giving Tony Blair cover. But neo-con types were discussing all along the possibility that ONE free and democratic Arab country could change the dynamics of the whole region. And also that hitting ONE terror-supporting nation could be a heads-up to the rest. And also that having an army in Iraq would put us a good position to pressure other Arab countries.

Also, we see every day that democracy is not some "manic" or "evangelical" ideal. It is a practical remedy for many ills, and can, in admittedly imperfect form, take root even in poor and backwards places. And there is a lot of evidence that it does have a big effect in preventing terrorism. How many Muslims are there in India? 100 million? So how many Indian Islamo-loony terrorists have we caught? I haven't heard of any. In India Muslims take their frustrations to the ballot-box. I think it is now incumbent on those like Helprin, who dismiss democracy with an airy wave of the hand, to make a case. The case FOR democracy has become self-evident.

But the main problem with Helprin's thinking throughout this essay is
contingency. The occurrence of communist Russia or Nazi Germany were contingent on various happenings, any of which could have gone differently. Suppose Germany had not helped Lenin get to Russia? Suppose Hoover had vetoed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff? I can imagine a train of events where a more careful taping of a door latch by the Watergate burglars might have prevented the war we are in now...

Helprin is guilty of a kind of lazy thinking that assumes that what happened in the past presents us with a simple and obvious lesson that can be applied to the future. But a Helprin of 100 years ago would probably have looked at Japan or Germany and seen looming problems of industrial competition or imperialist expansion. (And so it could easily have turned out.)

...By taking intelligent advantage of the fertile relation between economic development and military capacity, China will be able to leverage its extraordinary growth into superpower parity with the United States. Without the destruction of Chinese social and political equilibrium, this is only a matter of time. And just as we had no policy for dealing with the rise of Germany, Japan, and (prior to the late 1940s) Russia, we have none here....

This too sounds wrong to me. China clearly has a LOT of problems ahead on the road to becoming a "superpower." And many of the problems are ones that the solving of will tend to make China less dangerous. For instance, its huge, expensive and poorly-equipped military is big drag on China's economy. One of the two has to give. So it is intellectually dubious to consider both a huge military and economic growth as signs of a dangerous China. Also, until recently large countries produced most of what they needed themselves. Italians drove Italian cars, and Japanese drove Japanese cars. and likewise with planes, tanks, ships, guns...Helprin's "fertile relation between economic development and military capacity" made much more sense back then. Now most of China's, and everybody's, wealth is based on trade. That wealth would mostly evaporate if trade contracted or ports were blockaded.

...We have not since the Korean War been able to face China on the mainland...

I think this is nonsense. We rebuilt our armed forces in the 1970's and 80's to be able to defeat the Warsaw Pact forces if they attacked the NATO nations. Most people are unaware of how successful we were, because that war was never fought. But we did destroy, in 1991, a large army that had been trained and equipped by the Soviets. We smashed the Iraqi army in 100 hours, with trivial casualties. If you want to know what would happen in a conflict with China's soviet-style military, I suggest reviewing the Battle of Medina Ridge. And while our army is presently smaller and much-burdened with nation-building, it is also becoming increasingly powerful in conventional warfare, with new weapons and, even more important, vastly more effective digital communications being added all the time. (And we should all give thanks to Donald Rumsfeld, who valiantly resists both those who are afraid to tackle messy problems like Iraq, and those who now panic and say we should should convert our whole military to Iraq-style pacification forces.)

Helprin's way of thinking takes whatever is happening now and projects a straight line into the future. But remember that a few years ago that kind of projection said that Japan was going to be a superpower . Now we are worried about Japanese stagnation! Europe has been touted as a coming superpower, but we are starting to worry seriously about European economic collapse. If Helprin had written this in the 1980's he would be castigating us for not preparing for the coming Japanese colossus. In fact we were preparing, by allowing our economy to DESTROY a lot of it's structures, clearing the way for stupendous growth. And we are doing the same thing now.

Almost everything that gets done in the world is done by optimists who wade into projects that turn out to be more difficult that they expected. Every public project has cost over-runs and mistakes. We need the Mark Helprins as voices of caution, but the Helprins never DO anything. They are too wise to try.

Our army SHOULD be fighting for ideas. Ideas are real and potent and solid, while the things and structures around us may melt away at any time.

Posted by John Weidner at January 24, 2005 3:04 PM
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