The Big Question that Needs to Be Asked at the Presidential Debates

News at Home

Mr. Palaima teaches Classics in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas.

If you have seen the film Black Hawk Down or read We Were Soldiers Once and Young or visited the Imperial War Museum in London, you might think, as Douglas MacArthur did, that Plato said, "Only the dead have seen an end to war."

Plato could have, but he didn't. It was George Santayana, looking at World War I veterans celebrating in a British pub, who uttered the sad words: "The poor fellows think they are safe! They think that the war is over! Only the dead have seen the end of war." American soldiers see no end to war in Iraq. Yet both presidential candidates have avoided telling us what they will do with our soldiers and our weapons if they are elected in about five weeks.

Do we even want to know? President Bush says he will stand firm. But this is easier to do in Alabama and Washington than in Fallujah. He also now wants other United Nations leaders, or rather their soldiers, to stand firm with our soldiers in the war zone our senators and representatives gave him the authority to create.

Senator John Kerry has his own vague approach to strengthen our shrinking coalition of the increasingly unwilling. European countries whose families still remember the Somme, Stalingrad and Dien Bien Phu will send their soldiers off to a new locus of sorrow. Our one relevant cultural memory, Vietnam, has disappeared in a political shell game concerning old service records and old combat medals.

Will the presidential debates force the candidates to stop playing politics with American and Iraqi lives? Is there any journalist with enough authority and integrity, and plain guts, to be our elder Cato and stay on message with a handful of questions? What do these two men who would be our commander-in-chief for the next four years think of the recent assessment of the leading Iraq expert at the Army War College's strategic studies institute that the insurgency in Iraq cannot be killed by our overwhelming firepower? Is the professor of strategy at the Air War College in need of new glasses when he sees "no ray of light on the Iraqi horizon"? Things have reached the point where Americans deserve straight answers to the kinds of moral questions soldier poet Siegfried Sassoon posed as he waded resolutely out of the killing trenches of World War I and back to London: What are our set aims? What is our time limit for accomplishing them? What price are we willing to pay in human lives? And whose lives will we pay? And where is peace?

We have in the last seventy years increasingly sought and achieved peace through desolation. Since Oswald Spengler published his The Decline of the West after World War I, the United States has been seen, quite rightly, as a Roman civilizing presence in the world. We build things - roads, arenas, luxury villas - and we destroy things with the same energetic efficiency. We use pragmatic Roman methods as we try to shape world affairs to our purposes.

The Roman historian Tacitus put it this way: "Where they make a desolation, they call it peace." Ali Adr, a temporarily dispersed pro-Sadr fighter, I am sure has never read Roman history. But he is bluntly Tacitean: "The Americans destroy, we build." We destroy. And destroying brought a long period of peace, at least in Europe and the United States, until what H.G. Wells would call man's beast nature crept back in Bosnia, in Kosovo, in lower Manhattan. And our response has been the same as ever: overwhelming force.

In April 1967, Martin Luther King reasoned that his own government was "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." And we were once openly glad of it. We dropped 1.36 million tons of bombs on Germany. One hundred and sixty thousand tons of bombs incinerated sixty six Japanese cities. We then moved into the atomic age, and Nagasaki and Hirsohima joined the list.

Our men came home, my father and father-in-law among them. We had peace. What Bob Dylan called the "big bombs and death planes" secured that peace.

We thought we had to make it even more secure. So we began dropping 7,078,032 tons of bombs on a single small country in southeast Asia, a thousand pounds for every living soul. Peace came there, too, but no victory. And our men came home, give or take 58,226.

Those whose names are etched in mirrored stone a short distance from White House and Congress died by degrees. No more than 300 in any set battle. At most 543 in a week.

Only the dead see the end of war. But we the living decide who will die, and when, and for what.

And we and our next president need to reach a moral decision. Now.

This article was first published by the Sacramento Bee and is reprinted with permission of the author.

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More Comments:

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Jesus is fairly clear in the Bible about the fate that awaits hypocrites. I think that is about all the scriptural guidance we need in assessing W's "world". What is required beyond that is a basic knowledge of history (including the track record of the presidential administration of the past 3+ years), of logic, and of the fundamental principles underlying the U.S. Constitution.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Maarja asks:

"could it be because our politicians have no good, recent models of successful campaigns centered on this (the oil/automobile dependency issue) ?"

Yes, I think that is a big part of it. The fight against the automobile near-monopoly in U.S. transport policy is clouded by

1) puritanical railings against over consumption (Jimmy Carter in his sweater)

2) techno whizz-bang enthusiasm, such as the "dawning of the age of hydrogen" (which is, after all, not a fuel source). There is a rumor that Kerry will advance a variant of this in the debates.

3) feel good tokenism: "if we can only get 5 miles more per gallon in our SUVs, by 2033 wouldn't that be wonderful ?"

4) American-centrism: there are good models of successful policies and politicians in other countries.

Against this cacaphony, dumbed-down Reagan-like optimism has had a pretty easy time maintaining policies of car-dependency (until the oil runs out, but thanks to the price going up, that will take awhile).

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

5) There is tremendous "path-dependency" in transport. For example, the ways New York City moves people around were basically established 100 years ago. It takes a long term perspective to think of an America with more public transit, more new communities being designed for walkability, a reversal of 100 years of sprawling growth, etc. Americans prefer quick fixes and there are few that apply to this problem.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Interesting article. I wonder what % of it might be true.
Novak, who in this piece castigates the CIA for doing its job rather than acting as a subservient tool of Karl Rove, is the same arrogant clown who betrayed the identity of CIA agent as punishment against her husband for doing HIS job. I suppose this is his way of showing intellectual solidarity to the juvenile your-with-us-or-your-with-the-terrorists mentality of the Cheney-Bush administration. Novak makes his own work subservient to Karl Rove, and therefore anyone anywhere else who does not do likewise must be the "enemy" and "at war" with our Fuehrer, er, president.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Fine. I agree with the general thrust. Where, however, is a U.S. politician with the backbone to call for balancing the budget by raising American taxes on gasoline to international norms (which begin to approach, though they do not reach, the real costs of the addiction to that fuel and an economy built around it) ?

I must redirect the terrorist connection, however. Cars are not less safe than trains or buses. The reduction in terrorism from a reduction in car-dependency would come from a reduction in the flow of finance through the Saudis (for example) to Al Qaeda (for another example). Even that reduction would necessarily be partial and gradual. We can expect no quick fixes by slowly moving towards a more sane transport system, only fewer quick disasters than if we do not.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

May I add the logical conclusion ?

G.W. Bush is a lousy manager. The Harvard MBA program has its successes and its failures.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

You both have my full concurrence in your advocacy of walking. It does, of course, help to live in a place organized for walkers and not drivers. Most American houses built in the last 50 years were cookie-cuttered down in areas developed around the automobile, and that legacy of Grand Myopia will be with us for some time to come. Please tell us when there is a political party or lobbying organization ready to compete with the car interests.

The bicycle is also worthy of mention in this context. I have lived in more than one city in this world where it is the fastest way to get around (bar none).

No poncho I have ever seen or heard of does a better job than a good strong portable umbrella in keeping water away from one's body, but I am open to suggestions. With global climate change now an unavoidable certainty (thanks to the flat earth society like denial of W. Bush et. al.), we are all need going to need to pay more attention to the weather in years and decades ahead.

Since I am a believer in sticking to the topic, however, I would like to shift the thread somewhat back towards the the issues in the upcoming presidential debates, e.g. why American auto-dependency is likely to be barely on the radar screen there. There are, of course, many reasons - Maarja has already touched on a few. I would focus on one of my pet peeves: hypocrisy.

In this instance, consider how often it seems to be the same people who rail against Big Government, but who also expect that taxpayers to that government to fork over big bucks to build and maintain freeways, fund highway patrols and ambulances and emergency rooms, and hospitals for the lung diseases caused by NOX, and hand over their (our) public lands for pennies on the dollar to oil and gas companies, not to mention having to make up for the revenues lost due to the inefficiencies of sprawl, asphalt-covered top soil and gridlock, and last, but not least, pay trillions of dollars to fight war after war to protect access to Mideast petroleum reserves. (Just to be clear on that last point, I agree with Hans Blix: the first Gulf War was "about oil", the second war not. However, the second Gulf War and the disastrous occupation now being conducted in Iraq, resulted in part from the first).

Michael Di Tore - 10/10/2004

I agree with all you say but how can you be undecided? It's not a question of just how the war is being handled by the Bush people. There are so many other things he's done that will run us all into the poorhouse unless you are the creme de la creme of society.
I am an Independent myself but I believe Bush is running for reelection on a platform of tragedy—the single greatest failure of national defense in our history, the attacks of 9/11 in which 19 men with box cutters put this nation into a tailspin, a failure the details of which the White House fought to keep secret even as it ran the country into hock up to the hubcaps, thanks to generous tax cuts for the well-fixed, hoping to lead us into a box canyon of debt that will render government impotent. At the moment we are being distracted by an enormous transfer of wealth taking place in this country, flowing upward, and the deception is working beautifully. The concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few is the death knell of democracy. No republic in the history of humanity has survived this. The election of 2004 will say something about what happens to ours. We will get what we deserve. It will be our fault. The choices are not perfect but to me it is a question of choosing the lessor or two evils. And Kerry is the lessor and not the weaker man either.

Andrew D. Todd - 10/2/2004

I would reply with the cautionary tale about King Canute and the tide. My basic perspective is that we are in the middle of a technological revolution-- Moore's Law, or "Singularity"; and that this revolution has economic, ecological, social, and political correlates. Sooner or later, Moore's law is going to turn up on the White House lawn, and an unwise president will find that he is president of nothing. The great political challenge is to manage the transition to a new and fundamentally different economic ordering without having a genocidal revolution in the French or Russian style.

Both parties are hopelessly out of touch with technology. They are in bed with vested interests, and are pursuing all kinds of courses of action, especially in the domain of intellectual property, which seem almost willfully designed to trigger a Boston Tea Party. Perhaps the greatest danger of the business in the Middle East is that it may distract both parties from the impending crisis at home until it too reaches explosive proportions.

Maarja Krusten - 10/1/2004

Hi, Andrew. This thread is moving further and further away from the original article, above. But I can see you are interested and very knowledgeable on transportation issues. So, a few more links for you from the Washington area perspective:

On budget shortfalls and Washington Metropolitan Transit agency's unique funding problems, see

Also see

For varied use of Metro (commuting, errands) from the perspective of Arlington Co., Virginia (a major DC suburb) see

For perspective from Montgomery County, Maryland (a major DC suburb) see
www.mc-mncppc.org/.../01_meeting_archive/ agenda_112701/Planning%20Board%20summary%20final.pdf

Posted on personal time during lunch break

Andrew D. Todd - 10/1/2004

Let's try to deconstruct an automobile. People have periodically built dinky little cars, more or less on the golf cart principle, which get a hundred miles a gallon, or run on electric batteries. These vehicles are perfectly adequate for tootling around a restricted area, such as a neighborhood or small town, at ten or twenty miles an hour. They can haul home a couple of hundred pounds of groceries without any particular problem. Such vehicles' basic limitation is that they aren't up to playing with the big boys on the Interstate (running with the big dogs, if you prefer). And of course, major arteries tend to approximate Interstates, except that they don't have overpasses. There are very definite limits to where you can get to with a vehicle that is only fit for twenty miles an hour. In some respects, they are even more restricted than a bicycle, because with a bicycle, you can at least dismount and exercise the privileges of a pedestrian with a shopping cart, eg. using sidewalks and cross-walks. Japanese and Europeans have from time to time attempted to import these little cars to the United States, not understanding about American freeways. In Japan and Europe, they tend to have trains instead, and only comparatively rudimentary freeways. Most of the problems associated with the American automobile stem from its high-speed aspect, and this is associated with commuting.

There is a maxim to the effect that "merchants go to visit their customers, not the other way around." Of course this has to be modified according to circumstances, eg. the logistics of large stores, but in general the principle holds. Shopping trips are likely to be much shorter in distance than commuting trips, because if they were not, the shopper might very well find himself another merchant. For the time being, this means "big box" stores in the suburbs, close to where people live, but big box stores are not very well placed to absorb robotics. Internet retailers and parcel shipping companies are much better situated in this respect, and the trend will increasingly be that the best and cheapest durable or semi-durable merchandise is that which is delivered to your home. The surviving store-front merchants are likely to be small and local, with things like restaurants becoming more dominant.


I really do not accept the principle of "lock-in." I tracked down a map of the Washington metro subway system:


and also of the bus lines:


and commuter rail:


Collating this information, I should think it would be straightforward to set up a bus service running along the beltway

The city of Curtiba in Brazil launched an interesting experiment, using buses as if they were subways.


As adapted to Washington, DC, these would be express buses which would go from one subway/commuter-rail station along the beltway to the next. A bus on the freeway can hack down sixty miles an hour. The total circumference of the beltway is about sixty miles. I count ten subway and commuter rail crossing points, for an average spacing of about six miles. I should think that, including stops, it ought to be possible to run the buses at an average of forty or fifty miles an hour. Since you already have the expensive component, the right of way, in the shape of the beltway, this system would be very inexpensive to implement.

The "high-stepping" portion of the Washington/Maryland/Northern Virginia transit system is designed on the assumption that users would prefer to drive themselves whenever possible, hence the emphasis on things like "park and ride" lots. This is a common characteristic of most other American transit systems. If that assumption were to change, the system could be easily fixed. However, for that to happen, large numbers of people would have to truly embrace the city in the Jane Jacobs sense of the word.

Maarja Krusten - 10/1/2004

Please see my posting on post-debate poll results, apparent effect of fatigue on debaters (Nixon in 1960, Bush in 2004) plus musings on the echo chamber effect. x-ref http://hnn.us/readcomment.php?id=43385#43385

Maarja Krusten - 9/30/2004

Washington, DC also has problem with path-dependency. Its subway system first opened in the mid-1970s. When its subway system was designed in the 1960s, planners assumed most riders would be commuting from the Maryland and Virginia suburbs to workplaces in Washington. But in recent decades, many commuters changed their patterns as new employers opened business in the suburbs.

Some workers started commuting from Virginia to Maryland and Maryland to Virginia, as well as into the city. Shopping patterns have changed, as well. The downtown shopping district around F Street, NW, drew many shoppers during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. But in later years, shoppers started going to new, large shopping malls in Virginia and Maryland, and more recently, to the "Big Box" stores in the suburbs. The central shopping district in Washington initially declined quite markedly, but has been somewhat revitalized in the last ten years.

The subway is locked in its old design, of course, with the main routes feeding through the center city. There is no easy way to go from Virginia to Maryland, a rider has to take the long way around by riding into Washington and then out to the other suburbs.

Maarja Krusten - 9/30/2004

I used to vote Republican quite comfortably during the Cold War, but have described myself as an Independent for the last ten years or so. I could not tell you today whom I will vote for.

Here's an interesting news item. John Eisenhower, son of the former President, is breaking a 50-year record of voting Republican and endorsing Kerry.
See http://www.washtimes.com/upi-breaking/20040930-103802-8001r.htm

"In a guest column for the Manchester (N.H.) Union-Leader, . . . John Eisenhower said he was 'totally unfamiliar" with today's Republican Party.

'America, though recognized as the leader of the community of nations, has always acted as a part of it, not as a maverick separate from that community and at times insulting towards it,' he said. 'Recent developments indicate that the current Republican Party leadership has confused confident leadership with hubris and arrogance.'"


"'There are times when we must break with the past, and I believe this is one of them,' Eisenhower wrote in the opinion column published Tuesday in The Union Leader of Manchester, New Hampshire. The column assails President Bush and the GOP for federal budget deficits, for 'unilaterally' invading Iraq and for infringing on personal liberties."

Maarja Krusten - 9/30/2004

You have probably noticed a through line in my postings. I am interested in how government operates and how Presidents lead. I don't endorse all the managerial approaches I am describing here. But I am trying to remind readers that not everyone in Washington sees things as academics do. I believe it is useful to know how others think and how they justify their actions. As some of you know, I am a government official, someone who has worked in federal service for 31 yars, and counting. For many reasons, I've found it useful to figure out how Presidents and their aides work in Washington.

Maarja Krusten - 9/30/2004


Smartphone posting

Maarja Krusten - 9/30/2004

The Podhoretz quote above indicates that Washington and the West Wing often draw people who are not reflective. (Given George W. Bush's sense of purpose, I don't know that the comment about compromise applies to the President, but the rest of the passage certainly provides something to ponder.)

See http://www.claremont.org/writings/crb/spring2003/pitney.html for an interesting review by John J. Pitney of Tevy Troy's book about Presidents and intellectuals. The reviewer notes of David Frum's book, which I cited in the Prez needs good information posting above,

"Frum says that the Bush White House has plenty of bright people but few with vocal enthusiasm for the world of ideas. 'Conspicuous intelligence seemed actively unwelcome in the Bush White House,' writes Frum. Former message czarina Karen Hughes 'rarely read books and distrusted people who did—anything she did not already know she saw no point in knowing.'"

Pitney concludes his review, "even if an 'intellectual ambassador' is a bad idea, Bush could benefit from staffers who know the world of ideas. For one thing, they could supply the vigorous internal debate that DiIulio found lacking. For another, they could serve as a distant early warning system. The mainstream academic community will supply Bush's foes with policy ideas and lines of political attack. Clues to the other side's strategy could well lie in some of the books that Karen Hughes purportedly disdained. Aspiring White House aides should know about the services they could render, as well as the severe limitations of their role. They may find their own clues in Tevi Troy's excellent study."

Maarja Krusten - 9/30/2004

"Just as politics live for power" should, of course, read "just as politicians live for power."

Maarja Krusten - 9/30/2004

In the post above, the phrase "no especially reflective people" should read "not especially reflective people." As for the source, it is page 54 of the Podhoretz book.

Maarja Krusten - 9/30/2004

Here's a good book to read to see how one former White House aide viewed his experiences during the Reagan and Bush I administrations. It's _Hell of a Ride_ by John Podhoretz. Consider this passage from his book:

"This might sound pretty awful, but people who reach this West Wing level are, generally speaking, no especially reflective people. Washington ambition discourages reflection. If presidents and congressmen had it in them to do even minimal soul-searching about the compromises they were making, had to figure out whether what they were doing was for the common good or for their own personal good, the conundrums of conscience would make them ineffective and indecisive.

The same capacity for deliberately unenlightened self-interest characterises just about everyone else involved in American politics. Just as politics live for power--and after all, even the best of them are in it for the power, because they, too, need it to fulfill their special sense of mission--their parasites crave its proximity."

Maarja Krusten - 9/30/2004

I just read the new article that was posted on HNN last night at http://hnn.us/articles/7636.html . It covers issues pertinent to some of what we debated here yesterday.

Maarja Krusten - 9/29/2004

Peter, you write "I would like to shift the thread somewhat back towards the the issues in the upcoming presidential debates, e.g. why American auto-dependency is likely to be barely on the radar screen there."

My focus as a historian has been more on what Presidents do when in office than on how they get there, although for incumbents running for a second term, there obviously is a connection between the two. And, of course, as a Nixon expert, one who specialized in the tapes dealing with "governmental abuses of power," I know a lot about dirty tricks and behind the scenes manuevering during campaigns.

As to your question, I hate to sound cynical, but could it be because our politicians have no good, recent models of successful campaigns centered on this (the oil/automobile dependency issue) or any other tough question? One of the most successful campaigners in recent times was Ronald Reagan, who used a "morning in America" theme. I'm not bashing him, remember, I voted for him, twice. But I wonder if the success of Reagan's approach spoiled voters and politicians alike, convincing candidates that the best way to connect to the people was through a "feel good" campaign. I sense some of that conviction in the Bush administration's rebuttal of criticism this year as "pessimism." To some extent, don't voters get attention paid to the issues candidates think they want to hear about? If citizens seem to shy away from tough issues, the politicians are not likely to bring them up. Focus groups and all that. . . .

BTW, I focus most of my postings on Bush because my field of expertise is how Presidents govern. Bush is chief executive, not Kerry, so I focus primarily on how he compares to past Presidents, how he has led, how he has managed domestic and foreign affairs, what is the long term effect of his decisions, etc. It seems to me Bush has left Kerry, if he should win, relatively little wiggle room on issues such as Iraq. We're kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place there.

Maarja Krusten - 9/29/2004

pls forgive and overlook inadvertent repetition at 11:28, 1:14 & 1:15

Smartphone posting

Maarja Krusten - 9/29/2004

see also

Smartphone posting

Maarja Krusten - 9/29/2004

Andrew, you wrote, "my conviction is that one should combine the maximum possible degree of electronic travel with the maximum possible degree of walking." No argument here! I don't own a car. Living as I do in the close in suburbs of a big city, and working in the city, I can get by without a car. I'm lucky enough to be healthy enough at age 53 to still be able to walk a lot.

I ride public transportion (mostly subway, buses occasionally, depending on where I'm headed). Whenever possible, I walk. I even walk to and from the grocery store, and pack my groceries in my backpack. Sometimes, when I need to buy heavier stuff than ususal, my boyfriend drives me to the store, but mostly I walk, through choice.

Unless there is a lot of snow and ice on the ground, I even walk to the nearby shopping mall, about a 45 minute walk to get there. I could take public transportation to go shopping, but I prefer to walk. Not as scenic as what you describe (rabbits, dear, crows--cool) but still enjoyable. And no skunks to worry about, except the human kind, of course!!

For anyone who missed the antecdent to Andrew's comment about the subway shutdown, see the Kerry patriotism thread last week, specifically http://hnn.us/readcomment.php?id=42633#42633 . I don't include a poncho in my backpack -- we've caught so much drenching rain this fall as the remnants of tropical storms move northwards, maybe I should. I do always pack an umbrella and a baseball cap!

Andrew D. Todd - 9/29/2004

To: Peter K. Clarke:

Well, as I see it, the issue is not automobiles versus buses or trains per se. Rather, it is the extent to which physical presence is demanded when mental presence is sufficient. Mental presence can be delivered by telecommunications over essentially indefinite distances at very low cost.

There is an interesting study of who drives how far, Pierre Bouvard and Jacqueline Noel, _The Arbitron Outdoor Study_


The essence of Bouvard and Noel's findings is that there is a comparatively small population which drives very long distances to work, to the point that they take about two hours a day, round trip, and that they could not go much further without seriously cutting into their working time, and that this population accounts for most of the miles driven.

Reading between the lines and interpolating a bit, we are in practice talking about people who, in terms of their logic, would commute thousands of miles if they had the bizjets to do it in. They are on the verge of becoming telecommuters, only the social structures are holding them back.

Look at the way in which the apparatus of travel is structured. Garage-door openers are a popular consumer good, and they are commonly used with garages built into houses. Think what it means when people are traveling under conditions such that they have a revulsion against even going outside between their houses and their cars. Parenthetically, garage-door openers are the technology of choice for detonating bombs by remote control. At the other end of the line, a big office building commonly has its own underground garage, and sometimes its own train station. The workers can arrive, go to their offices, work all day on their computers, and leave again, without ever having really been there. That is indicative of office workers who have a basic revulsion against the city in which their office is located. Commuters use trains and buses when they do not have enough influence to get a parking place in or near their office. It takes a fairly serious degree of crowding for buses and trains to be economically viable, given the presumption that the automobile is the first choice. The whole composite pattern is that of a transportation system designed to wall the commuter off from everyone else en route.

The classic commuter city is a product of a certain work organization, of extreme hierarchy. This hierarchy is expressed spatially, with the result that as many people as possible try to crowd into the smallest possible space, concentrated around the font of authority. If you make the work organization more egalitarian, people tend to spread out more, and they are able to live closer to their workplaces.

To: Maarja Krusten

I was pleased to hear that, in response to the subway shutdown, you had gotten yourself a backpack and sensible shoes. You might want to think about going a step further, and strapping suitable raingear to the pack, soldier-fashion. I would recommend an army-surplus poncho. That way, you can just forget about it until you need it. I used to live in Philadelphia myself, before moving up here to West Virginia, and the rains can be fairly torrential when the weather is coming off the ocean.

I realize this may be somewhat difficult for someone embedded in an organization, but my conviction is that one should combine the maximum possible degree of electronic travel with the maximum possible degree of walking, until motor travel practically gets squeezed out. In the course of my daily walks, I sometimes meet rabbits and deer, and frequently listen to the sarcasms of crows. I once met a skunk, and I can tell you, I was very careful to be polite on that occasion.

Maarja Krusten - 9/28/2004

You make some interesting points, Andrew. You're right that few people want to tackle the issue of oil and cars. Maybe part of the problem is our consumer culture--and I don't say that as an ideologue or extremist. Since the end of World War II, many American consumers have bought into the idea that "you can have it all."

Not many people are inclined to look at cause and effect, whether the issue is oil, or deficit spending, or whatever. We value optimism so, just cross your fingers. Just look at the abysmal savings rate among Americans as a whole. A lot of people seem to be like Mr. Micawber, hoping that something will turn up. And when people say they are worried about the federal deficit, or about dependence on oil from abroad, if you ask them what they would give up or do to solve the problems, they are hard pressed to answer.

Some say they want less government, especially a smaller federal role. If that is what they really want, have they thought through where entitlements should be cut (including what they are willing to give up); how states will generate more revenue, if the states are to pick up some of the slack; the role of private sector providers; how to handle regulatory issues (ensuring the safety of our frail seniors in nursing homes), etc. Not many of the voters I talk to have thought through, much less reconciled, all these challenges. So, I'm not surprised the role of automobiles rarely comes up.

And the politicians, who remember what happened to Walter Mondale, do not seem to want to break the spell--they seem afraid to confront voters with hard choices. How often have you heard charges of "pessimism" during this year's campaign? It has become a catchall rebuttal. . . how effective, we'll have to wait and see.

Maarja Krusten - 9/28/2004

Sorry, this shouldn't have been a stand-alone post, it belongs under the lousy options thread. Pardon my inattention!

Maarja Krusten - 9/28/2004

How much is true? Who knows. Some of what Novak reports is anecdotal. We only have bits and pieces of information about Bush's management style, much of it uncorroborated.

There is no one model for a Presidency, but the key is having staff and advisors who make sure decision makers have all the information and knowledge they need. Some Presidents prefer hearing things debated orally in Cabinet meetings or small group meetings, others prefer option papers and only hold pro forma Cabinet meetings.

Some, such as Clinton, are policy wonks who absorb very detailed information. Others take a more disengaged approach, such as Reagan. David Frum wrote in his memoir of the White House (_The Right Man : The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush_) that George W. Bush is "a good man who is not a weak man. He is impatient, quick to anger; sometimes glib, even dogmatic, often uncurious, and as a result ill-informed." Does that sound like the kind of boss you could go to with bad news, especially on very complex issues that do not lend themselves to ideological solutions? I should add that Frum also wrote of Bush that "outweighing the faults are his virtues: decency, honesty, rectitude, courage, and tenacity."

Bush himself told Fox's Brit Hume in 2003 that he relies on his aides to filter the news for him. See
http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,98111,00.html . If he depends so much on his aides for his world view, then it is critical that some of them, such as the NSC advisor, act as true honest brokers.

Note that the analysts Novak describes did not pass their conclusions up the chain to their boss or to the White House. This raises the question, why did they seem to feel they had to be passive, warning about bad outcomes in Iraq only if asked. They should at least have been able to express their concerns about Iraq to their own boss at the agency. The best bosses I have worked for have ensured that information flowed freely up and down the chain of command. The most disastrous situations I have witnessed on the job have been due to "shoot the messenger," syndrome, where subordinates got in trouble and were punished for speaking truth to power. Of course, the latter management style quickly stiffled the flow of objective data and good information.


Maarja Krusten - 9/28/2004

correction http//www.suntimes.com/output/novak/cst-edt-novak27.html

Maarja Krusten - 9/28/2004


posted by Smartphone during lunch

Andrew D. Todd - 9/28/2004

One persistent thing which is ignored in the whole discussion about the war, terrorism, etc., is oil. All the stories people tell about the Middle East devolve into lies because no one wants to talk about oil. The largest chunk of oil (and all the "prime cuts") is used to make gasoline. Practically all gasoline is used to power automobiles. Solve the automobile problem, and you solve the Middle East problem as an incidental byproduct.

The United States is a land-rich country. Making allowance for quality of land, we are even more land-rich than the Russians. Most of their vast area is Siberian tundra. Ours is the cornlands of Iowa and Ohio. When the United States becomes dependent on mineral resources from outside its own territory, that is a clinical symptom of addiction. The junkie never has enough, until he eventually kills himself with an overdose. Junkies are notorious for holding up stores to support their "habit." Some junkies are more dangerous than other junkies-- for example, "meth" junkies ("speed", "crank") are more prone to paranoid behavior than opiate junkies. Ask yourself in all candor whether the cumulative behavior of the United States in the Middle East, going back to Mossadeq, is not the behavior of a junkie in paranoid mode. There was a certain type of nineteenth-century domestic tragedy which ran as follows: The drunken husband did not work; he beat his wife, and molested his daughter. Eventually, the wife fed him rat poison, putting it in his whiskey, and, being caught, was hanged for murder. Does this not seem oddly familiar?

Oil and the Middle East are not the only problems associated with the automobile. Automobile accidents kill about forty thousand Americans a year, about half of them in connections with drunken driving-- forms of addiction cluster together. There are all kinds of health, pollution, and ecological issues. We need to critically examine the role of the automobile in society. Our leaders have not reached the ability to face the fact that we have an automobile problem. At most, they merely want a technological quick-fix. Air Force One is the American automobile in an almost comically exaggerated form, and the President is in no position to tell anyone not to drive a SUV. We need to look at the ways in which social and organizational structures "lock-in" the automobile. A wide range of giant buildings, such as skyscrapers and shopping malls are practically part of the "automobile system." If you control the excesses of the automobile, a byproduct will be to disperse potential terrorist targets.

Maarja Krusten - 9/28/2004

Good point about re-building Europe and Japan after WII. But it was much easier to do after we, the clear victors, signed conventional treaties to end the hostilities. In the "war on terror," of which the President insists the war in Iraq is a part, we face stateless enemies who keep changing the venues and tactics for fighting.

Did anyone catch President Bush on Fox's O'Reilly Factor on Monday, in the first of a three part series? See http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,133684,00.html which also links to a partial transcript.

O'Reilly brought up the "Mission Accomplished" sign of 2003. Bush answered the way he often does when challenged, even in a friendly venue such as O'Reilly's show, "Of course. I’m saying to the troops, on this carrier and elsewhere, thanks for serving America. Absolutely." Firm, confident--and unresponsive to the question. O'Reilly did not ask if he would thank the troops--most of us would thank the troops--he asked about the "Mission Accomplished" sign. This seemingly was a minor issue--one where Bush could have safely shown some reflection--but he did not back away from what he had done. Bush recently jibed that John Kerry could debate by himself for 90 minutes, a seeming reference to "flip flopping." One does not get the sense that the President often debates internally with himself, a quality some voters find reassuring -- and some less than reassuring.

I am an Independent, a truly undecided voter. My past voting record, during the Cold War, was Republican. Many of my Republican friends express concern as to whether we should have invaded Iraq in the first place, at least at the time we did, and diverted resources to that war which could better have been used elsewhere.  The war started out as a pre-emptive strike against WMD, with dark hints of 9/11 thrown in.  Then the story shifted to  eplacing a tyrant and bringing freedom to the Iraqi people.

Many voters have questions about the war similar to those I hear among my friends, Republican and Democrat.  But the administration rebuffs such questions by implicitly asking, don't you want Iraqis to live in freedom and under democracy?  Of course we do. I wish every person who now lives in an undemocratic country could experience freedom. That does not mean the U.S. can take responsibility for regime change in each of those countries.

Rarely does the President refer to the perceived strategic reasons for going in to Iraq, reasons which have been debated at length here on HNN. He refers instead to removing a tyrant, etc. And never does he imply that he could have done something differently or that he has learned by reasessing his past actions, even in something so simple as the "Missin Accomplished" sign. So, however useful it would be to get resolution, I for one am not looking for the debate to answer the types of questions posed in the article above.

Oscar Chamberlain - 9/27/2004

About the questions you want asked, I concur, though I think such a person is more likely to at the town meeting than among the national press.

About the US making a desolation. There are times we have done so, but in Europe and Japan after World War II, we helped people rebuild. We were not simply destroyers there, and it was not solely our ability to destroy that brought the US and Europe (and Japan, most of all) a time, albeit perilous, of peace.

Finally, moral decisions are going to be hard to come by at this stage. A quick departure leaving chaos? doubling our troop numbers to replace chaos with order? partition?
Bush has a lot to answer for in making Iraq (as someone once said about North Korea) "the land of lousy options."

But I don't know if it is entirely clear what the most moral--or least lousy--option is now. My suspicion is that-- in terms of Iraq well-being--that how well we manage the decision may matter more than the decision itself.

Oscar Chamberlain - 9/27/2004

About the questions you want asked, I concur, though I think such a person is more likely to at the town meeting than among the national press.

About the US making a desolation. There are times we have done so, but in Europe and Japan after World War II, we helped people rebuild. We were not simply destroyers there, and it was not solely our ability to destroy that brought the US and Europe (and Japan, most of all) a time, albeit perilous, of peace.

Finally, moral decisions are going to be hard to come by at this stage. A quick departure leaving chaos? doubling our troop numbers to replace chaos with order? partition?
Bush has a lot to answer for in making Iraq (as someone once said about North Korea) "the land of lousy options."

But I don't know if it is entirely clear what the most moral--or least lousy--option is now. My suspicion is that-- in terms of Iraq well-being--that how well we manage the decision may matter more than the decision itself.