General Thoughts on the Syrian War
My policy prescription for US policy on the Syrian War has been, since it started to pop up on the news a couple years ago, to protect the Americans in the region and otherwise do nothing- let it sort itself out.
My thinking has been based on several counts:
1-We have no good options, no allies or even proxies to use. If Bashar Assad stays in power due to our intervention, we just helped an Iranian proxy keep Iran’s influence extended all the way to the Mediterranean.
If the rebels come to power due to our intervention, then
a) if they were to do so in 2011, then the ‘democracy’ we help them set up would be either picked apart by local foreign interests, or blown apart by the sectarian power struggles which doubtless would erupt between Sunni Arabs, Druze, Alawites, Kurds, etc;
b) if the rebels were to come to power any time after the conflict intensified, ie after 2011, then whatever ‘democracy’ we would have on paper by then would immediately be torn apart by the above-described impending sectarian war, perhaps resulting in a genocide against Assad’s people, the Alawites.
2- We are still engaged in a low-level global war with al-Qaeda and its affiliated organizations, albeit a different kind of war than the one that was waged up until 2008-2009. That makes it no less deadly; and by providing aid to the Syrian rebels, we unalterably provide aid to al-Qaeda’s affiliates in Syria. When providing weapons to a coalition, you cannot ‘choose’ which groups to give weapons to; comrades-in-arms share supplies, and in any case, if our own weapons have wound up, against our wishes, in the hands of the forces of the Assad regime, there is literally no chance Americans can keep them out of the hands of the Jihadists among the rebels.
3-We have no interests or important threatened partners in the region. For all intents and purposes, we are no longer working with Nouri al-Maliki’s regime in Iraq; the Israelis actually feel more secure than ever, as they are more than capable of defending their territory from insurgencies, as they have had decades of practice in doing so, and they now no longer face conventional threats along any of their borders; the Egyptian military, while presiding over a chaotic state, is still the dominant force in Egypt and is not threatened by unrest in Syria directly; the Hashemite kingdom in Jordan, while threatened immensely by refugees and overspilling violence, and a loyal partner to the United States in the War on Terror, is not a keystone in our strategy; and the Turks are more advanced than any other state in the Middle East save Israel, and are capable of sorting out their own border problems regardless of an American intervention. Beyond all this, aside from the basic business interests we have in all countries, we have no particular economic interests in Syria. Our political interests are very hazily undefined, and in any case the dreams of a stable and democratic Syria do not appear to be serviceable by American intervention.
4-If we intervene, we run the risk not only of another Iraq or Afghanistan-style campaign, but one in which the Russians and Chinese are actively supporting the opposing side.
L-Now, I do not deny for a moment that the situation over there is brutal, unjust, and a threat to the stability of the world. I do not deny that the deprivation of life and liberty of over one hundred thousand Syrians is the greatest horror this decade has yet witnessed, and my wishes and prayers for an end to this turbulence go up to Heaven.
But, I am not of the opinion that the Western powers (for that is who would be acting, if there were an intervention) are of the power to do anything meaningful about it. All proposed ideas seem to be capable only of perpetuating the unrest through unstable political arrangements, none of which will be particularly conducive to American interests once a solution has ultimately been reached.
Instead, I believe it is time we Americans come to terms with our relative powerlessness to turn Syria into San Francisco, and recede to the proper role of the great power- that of manipulating the power structure to our benefits and, if they coincide with ours, the benefits of regional stability. As for Syria, we ought to let the factions involved and interested work this deal out.
A study of the foundations of powerful nations appears to show that greatness comes with great turbulence- gold is wrought in flame. The three periods which most critically shaped the United States- the Revolution to the War of 1812, the Crisis of the Union to the Civil War, and the Great Depression and Second World War, all featured great internal instability and international pressure, the solution of which in each case was a fundamental alteration of American power through the manipulation of geopolitics and governance. Three times, America was baptized by fire; and given the inconsistencies and insufficiencies of American power today, it is not clear that it will not undergo baptism a fourth time.
China, France, Russia, Iran, India, Germany, Japan- all these nations and more have endured similar periodic trials. The Muslim world lost its unity when the Ottomans fell, and the system and balance of power instituted to bring order to the resultant chaos has proved insufficient to stand up to the stresses of the post-Cold War and post-9/11 worlds. The Arab Spring was one manifestation of that insufficiency; new orders, new methods, are on the rise, and we will soon know the full consequences of this latest political evolution. There is no end to history; it merely cycles on.
The problem with international law is the rigidity it attempts to impose upon the nations of the Earth. Chilling though the thought may be, the Nazis were not wrong in their concept of lebensbraum, or ‘living space.’ They took it too far and turned it into an unwieldy and dangerous ideology; but the concept itself appears to be a principle which has played a role in many of the conflicts throughout history, though it appears that alliances and agreements tend to nullify its effects to a degree. In general, though, peoples tend to seek out living space for themselves and their groups, and historically have clamored violently over that agricultural blessing, land.
Moreover, the composition of Syria (and other states in the Levant, for that matter) is distinctly more sectarian and un-national than other states Westerners have dealt with. Egypt and Turkey are likely the most ethnically-unified states there, yet in times of turbulence they have experienced sectarian wars of dramatic brutality. The situation in Syria has been observed for quite some time to be brutally ethnicity-based, and is not likely to change anytime soon. The reality on the ground is a melting pot in which the ingredients do not mix well when stirred.
The solution to Syria will be decided in this brawl between interested factions, and it will almost assuredly be a result neither friendly to American interests nor pleasing to American morals. But if some Prince is ruthless and cunning enough, he may likely use this opportunity to usurp the status quo, and never return to the Syria that existed before 2011- he will manipulate, through force, influence, law, and every tool available to him, the political realities on the ground, and in the minds of men, and build a polity more lasting and more powerful than the feeble statelets which the dying empires of Europe crafted decades ago. The Islamic world has only known internal stability when its major geographic regions were united. It seems al-Qaeda’s goal of Islamic unification, and the similar goals of the Ba’athists, were not so crazy after all. But a caliphate from Malaysia to Morocco is not necessary; but a Leviathan capable of arbitrating disputes between warring clans or regions is. And such a tool is not constructed solely by political means, but requires significant development of infrastructure, defense technology, and indeed, a program for the expedited maturation of society. And indeed, if such a success (as Turkey and Iran aspire to become) emerges, it will not be a peaceful empire, but as equally warlike as all those other states which surround it and have preceded it; but its interior will know tranquility. Syria (and the Levant in general) finds itself in the position of the China which Sun Tzu knew, or the Italy Machiavelli observed.
It is for this Syrian statesman to rise, and like Nasser, Ataturk, and Khomeini, seek a new vision for his fellow men. His legacy will one day be both dark and bright. His followers shall be as controversial as those of any great man. Not everyone will win- be it the Israelis, the Iranians, the Turks, the Americans- someone’s feet will be smashed. An order peaceful all around is not so possible as Wilson might have hoped. How stark the lot of man. But if anything is to be done to solve Syria’s dilemma, it must be done by those involved.
I have copied here Chapter 21 of the Xunzi Jijie, the collected works of the great sage Xunzi. A later Confucian master who has received much less esteem than his work merits, Xunzi has historically been remembered as the mentor of Han Feizi, who went on to found the proto-fascist doctrine of Legalism. Nonetheless Xunzi’s method is resoundingly clear and salient, and his ideas presented here have been extremely influential upon my thought.
The regard the first one-third to one-half of this passage as crucial. The rest is useful and interesting and complements the opening, but is not nearly so delightful as its neighbor. I have attached the link to the complete works of Xunzi at the bottom of the page.
21: Eliminating Beclouding
People tend to suffer from a proneness to being beclouded by a single corner, thereby causing the Great Order to remain hidden from them.
But nowadays, the dukes/feudal-lords have strange/different [unorthodox] governments, and the Hundred Schools have strange doctrines/explanations—and so, right and wrong are mixed up, and orderliness and disorderliness are mixed up.
And thus, although princes of erring/chaotic countries and members of erring/disorderly schools may genuinely seek to be right, and consider themselves to be the judge of right and wrong, their partiality causes them to be in error, averse to tao, and misled by others who cater to what they follow.
Partial to what they have accumulated, they fear hearing its evilness. And leaning on their partialness, they fear hearing the praise of differing arts—even if they inquire into them.
What brings beclouding?
Desire can bring beclouding, the beginning can bring beclouding, the end can bring beclouding, distance can bring beclouding, nearness can bring beclouding, the profound can bring beclouding, the superficial can bring beclouding, the ancient can bring beclouding, the present can bring beclouding.
The major scholars of earlier times were beclouded—and from them came the disordered schools.
Mo Tzu was beclouded by [narrow standards of] utility, and did not know life’s elegancies [that are also beneficial]. Sung Tzu [,believing that desires naturally seek little amd should be given reign to] was beclouded by desire and did not know virtue. Shen Tzu [emphasized having one prince and using laws; taught that worthy officials, honoring the worthy, and employing the able are not that important] was beclouded by law, and did not know worthiness. Shen Tzu [(not the same person as the aforementioned Shen Tzu) believed that the ruler should only delegate his power to a person of talent] was beclouded by power/technique/method, and did not know wisdom. Huei Tzu [Neo-Mohist leader who stressed dialectic] was beclouded by words and did not know reality. Chuang Tzu [mystical philosopher] was beclouded by Nature, and did not know man.
If we consider tao from the standpoint/perspective of utility, it will merely be seeking gain. If we consider tao from the perspective of desire, it will merely be seeking satisfaction. If we consider tao from the perspective of law, it will merely be an art. If we consider tao from the perspective of power, it will merely be convenience. If we consider tao from the perspective of words, it will merely be dialectic. If we consider tao from the standpoint of Nature, it will merely be relying on things as they are.
These different presentations are all an aspect of tao.
But tao is constant, and includes all changes. One aspect is not sufficient to present the whole.
Those with partial knowledge perceive an aspect of tao, but are unable to know its totality—and thus, they think it is sufficient, and they gloss things over.
They confuse themselves and they mislead others.
Rulers end up beclouding inferiors, and inferiors end up beclouding superiors.
The Sage knows the afflictions that befall the mind, and sees calamities that come from being beclouded/prejudiced and hindered from knowing the truth. Therefore, he considers neither desire nor hate, beginning nor end, nearness nor distance, the universal nor the superficial, ancient nor the present. He is equally able to dispose of all things, and keeps balances level [rightly judges the value of things]. And thus, no sect can prejudice him or confuse his perception of the organizing principles of life.
Tao is the Correct Standard
What should be considered the weight used in the balances [used to weigh everything else]?
It is tao.
The Heart/Mind Can Know Tao Through Emptiness, Unity, and Stillness
How can a person know tao?
I say: By the heart.
How does the heart know?
I say: By emptiness, unity, and stillness.
The heart never stops storing [impressions], yet it also has what is called “emptiness.” The heart never stops having multiplicity/division/duality/diversity [of objects], yet it also has what is called “unity.” The heart never stops moving, yet it also has what can be called quiescence/stillness.
A person from birth has the capacity to know things. With this knowing is intention/collected-data-and-memory. This intention is what is storing [impressions]. But there is also what is called emptiness. What does not allow what is already stored to harm [with partiality] what is about to received is called emptiness.
A person from birth has a heart that has the capacity/accumulation for knowledge. This knowledge contains distinctions/differentiation. These distinctions consist of the simultaneous knowing of multiple things. This simultaneous knowing of multiple things is plurality/division. But there is also what is called unity. What does not allow impression/awareness/knowing to harm impression/knowing [and what allows a person to focus on what is most essential at the time] is called unity.
When the heart sleeps, it dreams. When it takes its ease, it indulges in reverie/wandering. When it is used, it reflects/schemes. Thus, the mind is always moving. But it also has what is called stillness. What does not allow dreams and fantasies to disturb/disorder one’s knowledge is called stillness.
Someone who is seeking tao but does not know it should be told about emptiness, unity, and stillness, in order to attain/act.
Someone who intends to seek tao will be able to receive it by having emptiness. Someone who intends to serve of tao will be able to do it in its entirety by having unity. Someone who desires to contemplate tao will be able to be discerning by having stillness.
Emptiness, unity, and equanimity can be said to be The Illustriousness of Following the Right Principle and Virtue / Great Clear/Pure Brightness/Understanding.
… When the heart is divided, it possesses no knowledge; when it is upset; it is not quick witted; when it is wandering, it is in doubt. But when it is not so, it can be used to help investigate, and all things can be embraced and known.
Thus, the human heart is like a tub of [muddy] water. Place it upright and do not move it, and the muddiness/impurities will settle to the bottom, and the water surface will be clear and bright enough to mirror the beard and eyebrows, and show the complexion’s condition.
But if a little wind crosses its surface, the mud/impurities will rise/be-stirred from the bottom, and the surface clearness and brightness will be disturbed, until a person cannot even use it to see whether he is standing upright.
The heart is like that. Therefore, if it is guided by principle and nourished by purity, no things will be able to overturn/tilt it, and it will be able to determine right and wrong, and decide what should be disliked and suspected.
But should a little thing leads/pulls it astray, a person’s orientation/aplomb will alter and his heart will be tilted, rendering him enable to decide matter in general. …
The Sage gives free reign to his desires and satisfies his passions, but is controlled by and accords with principle—so why should he need to be forced/will-strength, repressed/endurance, or anxious/caution?
For the jen person’s acting out/practicing of tao is wu wei, and the Sage’s acting out/performance of tao is without forcing himself. The thoughts of the jen.htm person reverence the thoughts of the Sage [or the jen.htm person’s thoughts are reverent, and those of the Sage are joyful]. To rejoice in this is the tao of the person of a controlled heart [developing te internally].
When observing things, if there is doubt and the heart is uncertain, things will not be apprehended clearly—and when one’s thoughts lack clarity, one cannot decide whether a thing is or is not.
If someone is walking in the dark and sees a stone on the ground, he will take it to be a crouching tiger; or if he sees trees standing upright, he will take them to be standing men. The darkness has perverted his clear-sightedness.
If a drunken person is crossing a wide aqueduct, he will take it to be a narrow ditch; or if he exits a city gate, he will bend down his head and take it to be a small private door. The wine has confused his spirit.
If someone sticks his finger in his eye and looks, one thing will appear as two; and if he covers his ears and listens, he will take a small sound to be a big noise. The circumstances have confused his senses.
In looking down from a mountain, a cow looks like a sheep; but someone who wants a sheep would not go down and lead it away. The distance has obscured its size.
In looking from the foot of a mountain, a big tree looks like a chopstick; but someone who wants a chopstick would not go down and break it off. The height of the mountain has obscured its length. …
When a blind person lifts his head and looks, he does not see the stars. His blindness has misled him.
If someone made judgments under such circumstances, he would be really stupid for doing so.
In his judgments, the stupid person uses doubtful premises to make decisions. Using doubtful premises to make decisions, he cannot be correct. Not able to be correct, how can he be without fault?
… The true student studies resolutely until the end.
Occasionally, I’ll see someone dressed in so distinctly from everyone else in the crowd, so against any norm or category, and so tough, rough, and ready that the only noun which I can think to describe them with is ‘Bounty Hunter.’ In the fleeting glimpses I have of them, I can only imagine that they are out on their way conducting a mission for some crime lord or CEO or bureaucrat. These commandos-for-hire are, in all likelihood, probably just ordinary guys living ordinary lives doing ordinary jobs, on their business making a living for their families, pursuing happiness as they see fit. But through my romantic vision, they are the badasses of the galaxy, perpetuating the ancient tradition of Dog and The Man With No Name.
How to Spot a Bounty Hunter
To identify these awesome individuals, it is first necessary to get an idea of social norms in dress and style both in general, and in particular situations like malls or ghettoes. (Those who know me well know that I still struggle figuring out what is in style.)
With an idea of ‘normal,’ the ‘abnormal’ can easily be discerned.
But there are a great many individuals tramping about the streets whose dress and style might be described as ‘abnormal.’ For example, hipsters dress notoriously out-of-the-mainstream. The skater culture is distinct, while hip-hop style is readily identifiable. And beyond the subgroups outside of the mainstream, there are always those countless individuals who dress uniquely for better or for worse. Now I am a fan of individualism, and make no value judgment here; but I would simply like to note, that dressing out of the normal ilk is not the sole measure of a Bounty Hunter.
Next, one must have a sense of what is badass and what is not. I would say that a lot of bikers and rappers have a general badass sense about them; but although they possess that, not all are very unique, as they are of their own fashion subgroups. But the elements that make them badass should be looked for when judging bounty hunters.
Chains, muscles, tattoos, leather jackets, and studs are often characteristics of Bounty Hunters, though not always. In fact, I have seen plenty of Bounty Hunters who possess none of these. But these accessories, matched correctly with a personal aura of toughness, make Bounty Hunters look badass- and without both badass appearances and badass demeanors, as well as individual uniqueness, individuals cannot be Bounty Hunters.
I have rather poorly articulated the three main features that distinguishes these individuals from the shifting masses of Mankind- badass appearances due to style and accessories, badass demeanors due to facial expressions and ways of walking and standing, and individual uniqueness from all social groups and all individuals in crowds. However, there is one test that can almost always be used to determine whether a unique, badass-looking, and badass-seeming individual is a Bounty Hunter or not.
In the wretched hives of scum and villainy that are the locales of Tatooine (and, arguably, Earth) Bounty Hunters stand out. Boba Fett, the iconic Bounty Hunter, holds an aura in the halls of Jabba’s Palace that distinguish him from the alien faces which would otherwise draw the eye, including that of Bossk, another renowned Bounty Hunter himself. Conversely, Greedo, who can barely be described as a Bounty Hunter, seems to be merely another bug in the crowd of the Mos Eisley Cantina. The qualifications ought to be obvious in these two cases.
And so we come to the ultimate test. If someone one sees in the field looks like they could be taking the place of Boba Fett, if someone seems like they could be a Bounty Hunter in a dangerous and alien universe depicted in a Science Fiction movie, then they are assuredly a Bounty Hunter. These types, though disproportionately males between the ages of 30 and 60, can be people from all walks of life, cultures, styles, and demeanors. Some of the most badass of them are women. And they are impossible to search for- they will only ever be seen when one who longs to see them forgets about them, and suddenly comes upon one in public places.
I have not included any pictures of these Bounty Hunters among us on this post, because I have unfortunately not been sufficiently a creep to take pictures of them when I have seen them. But I will amend my ways, and start taking pictures. This elite class of individuals makes a dull and dreary day an exciting adventure and fodder for campfire stories. I hope, over the course of the next year or so, to aid people in partaking in the soon-to-be Olympic Sport of Bounty Hunter hunting.
January 2013The sickness creeps beneath my skin, to play its vicious partA practice maladacious as a cunning, subtle art
My brain decries the horrors, couns’ling me to never start
But not before my veins are pierced, the pathway to my heart.
Two times before my walls were breached by this infectious strain
Each time the boiling of my blood quite paralyzed my brain
And songs were sung, (though lies were they,) with beautiful refrain,
“Hark mortal, follow us! For on our path, there is no pain!”
These sirens sang “Align your steps with th’ beating of our drums!
Hold down your head, lay back your arms, we grant it, pleasure comes!
Surrender now to what you feel!” Their glory struck me dumb!
And mindless, I continued ‘til the pleasure dulled me numb.
But yet, my eyes were not plucked out; my feet were never bound.
And neither were my hands tied up, my ears could still hear sound.
It felt so real, it felt so right, a par’dise I had found!
And so I thought, and so I KNEW, ‘til my ship ran aground.
And thus, this curse doth operate; it does not kill, for shame.
Instead it maketh man a corpse; a slave in all but name.
The carefree and the prudent are immune in their domain;
But the masses of the passionate are, every one, fair game.
The ghoul that hijacks all men’s minds has caught me twice before;
The first time, being stupid, I just let it through my doors.
My inn’cent inexperience, from then, would be no more,
And in the flames, I felt what passion truly has in store.
I pledged a pledge of vigilance- “To Thine own self, be true!”
I used the lessons I had learned, the wisdom I thought I knew
And soon enough, I found that wisdom certain to be true
For yet again, the demon found-me, and charged my soul straight through.
My heart had cried, my brain had sighed, I thought, the final time-
For from now on, against myself, I’d ne’er commit this crime!
I’d WATCH myself, I’d FORCE myself, I’d KEEP myself in line!
But ‘gainst the righteous thinkers do the bells of judgment chime.
A month passed by, then two and three, and never did it show.
Temptations floated by, as must temptations float by so.
The oarsmen in my spirit kept a steady, growing row;
CONTENT! I found, CONTENT! I knew! CONTENT I wish to know!
But as the pretty diamond scratches all that it dares touch,
And too little is as much a curse as-its counterpart, too much,
And the world is more interesting than it seems- this-we-know, then such
There’s more to things than meets the eye, or sound, or taste, or touch.
So in my moment-of-triumph, did the devil dare sneak in;
And bomb the nerves with passion, and set glistens on the skin;
And rack the spine with chills and aches, and complicate the brain,
And do his best to send to me a gift-wrapped box of pain.
How could the world-moving force, which raised me up from birth,
And was a source of joyous ties, a harbinger of mirth
Become a Trojan Horse when shared with those without my blood;
And pun’sh my brain, and rack my heart, and spray my soul with mud?
What of our Universe, when such a contradiction reigns?
The pleasure, yet the torture; and the joys, and yet the pains?
Is balance ever real? And what of losses, and of gains?
What of the human person- and his organs, heart, and brains?
Perhaps I wail before my time; I cert’nly am not wise.
I hear through five-times muffled ears, I see through shaded eyes
Experience for me is quite a thing of puny size
And thus my musings-can only be-what self-righteous thought-may surmise.
I therefore take my sword and now march blindly forward yet!
My God in Heaven runs this world, his plans already set!
Each painful fall’s a lesson which I never must forget!
And what-of-this-new development? The same old thing, I’ll bet!
Whenever I hear or read “dissolve Parliament” I picture all the MP’s squabbling around with each other and as the Prime Minister finishes counting the votes, he’s sweating tensely and counting the votes slower until the final ballot, and in the end he announces “And the body of right honorable gentlemen decides… that Parliament ought to be dissolved” and with that he lifts a door on his desk under which is a big red button with the words “DISSOLVE- DO NOT PRESS UNLESS SERIOUS” written around it and then, closing his eyes, he brings his fist hard down upon the button, smashing it into the podium. Meanwhile the chaos around him continues and red lights begin to flash and sirens begin to sound, as the walls of the chamber open up and a deluge of some interestingly named chemical begins to flood the assembly by the thousands of gallons, and the panicking politicians mill about as their bodies begin to dissolve at the molecular level by intricate chemical reactions none of them ever took the time to understand, and their wails and their end-scene-of-Raiders-of-the-Lost-Ark-esque death faces are immortalized by the security cameras meant to carry out basic human security duties. Within minutes there is nothing but a sloshy solution of acid and particle-sized human remains, and some massive drains open up, allowing the filth to wash away to the sewers to be carried away to the nearest body of water to contaminate people’s showers and sinks. When the room is finally dry again, and restored to its original glory, the masterless ministers of government call for new elections and the democratic process starts all over again.
Disclaimer: I hold no neoconservative tendencies, and view that faction within our nation as more dangerous to liberty and order than any foe our nation has ever faced.
The motifs and symbols of American imperialism represented below are not, in my case, triumphant accolades glorifying and deeming righteous the cause of American dominion, but icons which ought to be adopted when a nation takes a certain undeniable role in the world- and, in America’s situation in 2013, that role is undeniably the role of an empire.
Rather, I hold it to be true that certain realities ought to be admitted by a democratic public, if that public is to go on driving policies as our public does. The United States should be seen for what it is, not what it is not. We are not a declining great power. We are not just another member of the world community. We are not a republic free to isolate itself behind the walls of the sea. We are an empire, in every sense of the term, and until we acknowledge that and bear that truth in mind in the formation of policy and strategy, fortune shall ever abandon our side.
I write in the hope that our future leaders will be neither cowardly nor brash, neither too weak nor too strong, but prudent, just, enduring, and moderate, pursuing without reserve our interests as a nation, observing without question those principles which define us as a nation, and dedicating their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to that political experiment upon which the happiness of all our posterity depends.
I doubt there are many who would dispute that the United States is, at least in principle and theory, if skewed in practice, a constitutional republic.
I think more would dispute the notion that the United States is an empire. I will discuss this more in a later essay; but it is sufficient, for now, to argue that because the United States has the capacity to exert her influence in all regions of the globe, and because her economic and military power exceeds that of any nation on Earth, and because she is the undisputed leader of the existing international system, she is a de facto empire, even though she is not a formal one. Though her power appears to recede as other powers rise elsewhere, it is neither strongly challenged nor fundamentally undermined by this new development.
Although America has only enjoyed this position of global preeminence since 1991, she has clearly held lesser, but still quite powerful positions, in other periods of her history. For the duration of the Cold War, she was a superpower; in the First and Second World Wars, and their interbellum, she was a great power; from the last decade of the 19th Century up to the outbreak of the First World War she was at the very least, an up and coming great power. Even before this time, she sought imperial dominion over the North American continent, and expanded her commerce and navigation to all the ports of the Earth, beginning with her first days as an independent nation.
Thus I believe it would not be inaccurate to say that the United States has held a dual imperial-republican heritage for her lifetime as a nation, and, Godwilling, will maintain that heritage til she is cracked into squabbling polities or absorbed by greater powers.
It is interesting, then, that the American myth of foreign policy maintains a steadfast innocence up to the World Wars, followed by a dutiful assumption of the burdens of global leadership during the Cold War. Most actual reviews of the history of American foreign policy discover its true imperial nature* and present American history in terms of its international relations- an unorthodox approach, but one which begets important questions for students of American politics.
Republics have Senators. Empires have Emperors. As a brief observation of Antiquity reveals, the two systems do not seem to mix well. Yet, in the case of America, it is arguable that they have found something of a happy marriage.
As our constitution was founded upon a principle of checks and balances, it is invariable that American history should appear to be, by many interpretations, a struggle between the various branches of government and factions of the nation for power over national policy. And in both such a conception and the constitution itself, it is clear that the Presidency reigns supreme in issues of foreign policy. This is necessary, for the state of constant crisis which characterizes international systems across time and space necessitates, in the nations which must exist within it, a prudent and potent management of any nation’s affairs with its neighbors. Only a strong and hierarchical department can provide this- elected assemblies, having, as they do, multiple poles of power, tend to stagnate in debates and gridlock, fatal to a nation in crisis. The Romans elected a dictator when such times came; modern democratic states have entrusted the reigns of power in the foreign policy sphere to national leaders much less accountable to the public than their representatives in the legislature.
We come, then, to Arthur M. Schlesinger’s conception of the Imperial Presidency.
It is obvious that throughout American history, Presidents have exerted immense levels of power over foreign policy, oftentimes unchecked by Congress or the Supreme Court. But that is not necessarily threatening to the integrity or values of a Republic.
What is, however, is that oftentimes, Presidents have exerted imperial levels of power in the domestic sphere, sometimes as part of a larger foreign policy program, sometimes simply for the sake of domestic programs. While today, pundits across the political aisles indict George W. Bush as a power-seeking imperialist for his dramatic expansion of the War on Terror or his institution of the privacy-eroding Patriot Act, or condemn Barack Obama as a subversive despot for ordering thousands of semi-legal drone strikes in the Muslim world and authorizing Orwellian methods of intelligence collection into media and cyberspace, such tainted uses and abuses of power are not new to the Presidency. Obama and Bush have broken no golden standard of conduct of Presidents, the order of which must never be broken lest the United States dissolve into unbridled tyranny. A brief look at certain Presidencies illustrates this point.
Ronald Reagan was, first, a strong and principled statesman, and an enchantingly charismatic leader. But he was also a good politician who knew how to get out of dangerous situations- witness Iran-Contra. No truly objective biographies of the Gipper have yet been written which do full justice to his tact, or highlight the political scandals and overreaches of power he undoubtedly authorized. In any case he was certainly one of the more powerful Presidents of American history, certainly among the most inspiring, though in the 20th Century he lies in the shadow of greater men.
Richard Nixon was not so lucky. Here, too, was a great politician, a charismatic man, a skilled deal-breaker. His Presidency was wildly more successful than Johnson’s before him, in part due to fortune, in part due to those excesses of his power which he deftly managed to manipulate toward the national interest and the public satisfaction. But because he was unable to deflect the firestorm of Watergate, that shocking imposition of Presidential power into domestic life, he will forever be remembered a crook, regardless of the cunning statesmanship he had earlier exhibited.
Franklin Roosevelt might justly be remembered as the most powerful President in American history to date. He is a favorite punching-bag for strict constructionists, as his dramatic expansion of the Executive Branch’s economic powers and his sidelining Congressional and Supreme Court decisions (getting around the opposition of the latter body by literally changing its nature) certainly revealed a greater concern in him for the state of society than for its alignment with constitutional precepts. His management of American foreign policy and war policy during the Second World War was more single-handed than that of any other Commander-in-Chief since Lincoln. And in his lifetime, he was decried for his home imperialism more viciously than any of our statesmen today. His successor, Harry Truman, oversaw an expansion of the national security state; but it was more a corollary to Roosevelt’s alterations than a development independent of it.
Preceding FDR’s expansion of the state were the great progressives: FDR’s cousin, Teddy Roosevelt, and the arch-nemesis of Teddy, Woodrow Wilson. While Wilson is mostly remembered among strategists for his idealism and his vision which contributed to today’s world order, in his Presidency he pushed through a great many reforms, most notably the Federal Reserve Act, and was the first President to commit the United States explicitly to a European War. Teddy was perhaps more imperialistic, truly inaugurating the era of Progressive reform and expanding at will American foreign policy interests. While Progressive leanings in themselves do not make an imperial President, the will to expand Progressive reforms has been a typical characteristic of Presidents willing to exert power in the domestic sphere.
Turning to the 19th Century, we find that Christ of the American pantheon, the only Statesman who, not being of the Founding Generation, is revered almost as a member of it- Abraham Lincoln. All things considered, it seems that Lincoln could easily be termed the most powerful President of his century, for in waging a brutal war for the preservation of the Union, he literally expanded the Presidency’s power to levels unfathomed by any preceding American generation. Evil and unconstitutional ends were wrought on his behalf, and it is no surprise that he might also be thought of as the most divisive President in our history, for in saving the Union he transformed America to a degree not done before, and which has not been repeated since.
James Polk might be another candidate for his inauguration of the Mexican War, but looking just a few Presidencies before him we find Andrew Jackson, the People’s Man. Old Hickory was if anything a populist, and if he accomplished anything in his Presidency, it was the elevation of ‘the people’ in American politics through the avenue of the Presidency, at the expense of the other branches of government and other vested interests. The veto of the National Bank, the Indian Removal, the preservation of Union in the Nullification Crisis, all point to dramatic examples of expanded executive power, and Jackson’s titanic feuds with other statesmen such as Calhoun and Clay likely did not inspire him to aspire for only limited power in his Presidency.
Finally, we arrive at a President of the generation which knew the troubles of war and of statecraft, and not only a member of it, but the member of it who contributed the most to the American national character, for he defined America’s values themselves in penning the Declaration of Independence! Thomas Jefferson, ideologically, is the classic example of those small-town democratic traditions purported to make America unique. Yet it must always be remembered that he, the unequalled champion of limited government, overstepped the bounds of his Presidency quite a bit. He built up the American navy, from the fleet of gunboats it once was to a slightly more formidable oceangoing force capable of defending American shipping, and he deployed it at his pleasure. But perhaps more shockingly, in purchasing the Louisiana territory from France, he circumvented the constitutional system entirely, executing what was at its time the greatest overstepping of federal power in American history, by some measures a move less constitutional than the imposition of the Bank of the United States.
I hope to demonstrate, then, that the dramas of American political competition are not as new as some pundits would have us believe- that Presidents have always exerted more power than they have been entitled- and that the American system has been evolving due to other historical factors this whole time, while still preserving the fundamental essence of a Republic. All this, while our Republic has displayed, in foreign affairs, the characteristics of Empire.
However, I would only cautiously indulge in the idle supposition that all is well in the House of Washington. In the first place, the state of constant crisis aforementioned pertains not only to foreign affairs, but, it seems, to domestic affairs also. Thus the statesmen, as well as their advisors and servants, and the thousands of bureaucrats and contractors engaged in our political experiment, must always be on their guard, maintaining and developing the system, advancing and balancing interests, and perpetuating the liberty, security, and order of the Republic and the Empire.
But in the second place, more ominously, it must be noted that history is not solely a gradual and peaceful evolution of things, but also a series of violent revolutions and transformations of things. The ancient Chinese said “That which is long united must soon divide, and that which is long divided must soon unite.” As institutions survive, they become top-heavy and crumble, or otherwise grow outdated and useless as their situations change, when the wisdom of the past is too literally applied to the problems of the present. Nowhere is this more evident than in the silent, imperceptible, and crushingly real historical developments always at work among the polities of men, which no man however strong can change, to which all men however strong must bow, and with which every man who knows the interest of his state must align.
And the present situation of the United States appears as tenuous as ever. I have utmost faith that my countrymen will soon enter into a great era of political creativity, and there is no doubt in my mind that when next our world is in crisis, a team of competent and diligent men will be at the helm of America, striving to preserve both Republic and Empire. While the natural currents and balancing forces of our democracy will undoubtedly create a new balance which will serve our national interests, it will not be a deterministic process. Sweat and ink must be shed, ideas tried and tried again, careers made and destroyed, fortunes gained and spent in the process.
But we will succeed. And the felicity of all Americans succeeding us will depend upon our dedicated service in the years of hardship that lie before us. And one day, decades from now, when a new generation awakes to a new America, and encounters problems unique to their era and circumstance, they will look to the long tapestry of American history for inspiration and guidance, and see US at the head of that prestigious column. We must not let them down.
*See Robert Kagan’s Dangerous Nation and Walter Russell Mead’s Special Providence
I copy below the first chapter of George Friedman’s “The Next 100 Years.” This book was a bestseller which received positive reviews, but its author generally does not receive the esteem I believe he deserves. His company, Stratfor, is occasionally ridiculed; yet its analysis is more often right than wrong. In particular, Friedman’s and Stratfor’s forecasts and subsequent coverage of the rise of Turkey and Japan, and the relative decline of China and persistence of the United States, have only been observed by the mainstream media (and most foreign policy circles, at that) as they have started to happen. Friedman foresaw them years ago.
Beyond the general unesteemed but worthy credibility of the author, I have a particular affinity for this first chapter of “The Next 100 Years.” It is this piece that first truly introduced me to international relations, and Friedman and Stratfor have continued to inform my thinking, and my understanding of these principles, up to this very day.
All credit goes to George Friedman; I have done nothing but share his masterful intellect in hopes that others, intrigued as I have been, might look into his work.
I have no crystal ball. I do, however, have a method that has served me well, imperfect though it might be, in understanding the past and anticipating the future. Underneath the disorder of history, my task is to try to see the order—and to anticipate what events, trends, and technology that order will bring forth. Forecasting a hundred years ahead may appear to be a frivolous activity, but, as I hope you will see, it is a rational, feasible process, and it is hardly frivolous. I will have grandchildren in the not-distant future, and some of them will surely be alive in the twenty-second century. That thought makes all of this very real.
In this book, I am trying to transmit a sense of the future. I will, of course, get many details wrong. But the goal is to identify the major tendencies—geopolitical, technological, demographic, cultural, military— in their broadest sense, and to define the major events that might take place. I will be satisfied if I explain something about how the world works today, and how that, in turn, defines how it will work in the future. And I will be delighted if my grandchildren, glancing at this book in 2100, have reason to say, “Not half bad.”
An Introduction to the American Age
Imagine that you were alive in the summer of 1900, living in London, then the capital of the world. Europe ruled the Eastern Hemisphere. There was hardly a place that, if not ruled directly, was not indirectly controlled from a European capital. Europe was at peace and enjoying un precedented prosperity. Indeed, European interdependence due to trade and investment was so great that serious people were claiming that war had become impossible—and if not impossible, would end within weeks of be ginning—because global financial markets couldn’t withstand the strain. The future seemed fixed: a peaceful, prosperous Europe would rule the world.
Imagine yourself now in the summer of 1920. Europe had been torn apart by an agonizing war. The continent was in tatters. The Austro-Hungarian, Russian, German, and Ottoman empires were gone and millions had died in a war that lasted for years. The war ended when an American army of a million men intervened—an army that came and then just as quickly left. Communism dominated Russia, but it was not clear that it could survive. Countries that had been on the periphery of European power, like the United States and Japan, suddenly emerged as great powers. But one thing was certain—the peace treaty that had been imposed on Germany guaranteed that it would not soon reemerge.
Imagine the summer of 1940. Germany had not only reemerged but conquered France and dominated Europe. Communism had survived and the Soviet Union now was allied with Nazi Germany. Great Britain alone stood against Germany, and from the point of view of most reasonable peo ple, the war was over. If there was not to be a thousand-year Reich, then cer tainly Europe’s fate had been decided for a century. Germany would dominate Europe and inherit its empire.
Imagine now the summer of 1960. Germany had been crushed in the war, defeated less than five years later. Europe was occupied, split down the middle by the United States and the Soviet Union. The European empires were collapsing, and the United States and Soviet Union were competing over who would be their heir. The United States had the Soviet Union surrounded and, with an overwhelming arsenal of nuclear weapons, could annihilate it in hours. The United States had emerged as the global super power. It dominated all of the world’s oceans, and with its nuclear force could dictate terms to anyone in the world. Stalemate was the best the Sovi ets could hope for—unless the Soviets invaded Germany and conquered Europe. That was the war everyone was preparing for. And in the back of everyone’s mind, the Maoist Chinese, seen as fanatical, were the other danger.
Now imagine the summer of 1980. The United States had been defeated in a seven-year war—not by the Soviet Union, but by communist North Vietnam. The nation was seen, and saw itself, as being in retreat. Expelled from Vietnam, it was then expelled from Iran as well, where the oil fields, which it no longer controlled, seemed about to fall into the hands of the So viet Union. To contain the Soviet Union, the United States had formed an alliance with Maoist China—the American president and the Chinese chairman holding an amiable meeting in Beijing. Only this alliance seemed able to contain the powerful Soviet Union, which appeared to be surging.
Imagine now the summer of 2000. The Soviet Union had completely collapsed. China was still communist in name but had become capitalist in practice. NATO had advanced into Eastern Europe and even into the for mer Soviet Union. The world was prosperous and peaceful. Everyone knew that geopolitical considerations had become secondary to economic considerations, and the only problems were regional ones in basket cases like Haiti or Kosovo.
Then came September 11, 2001, and the world turned on its head again.
At a certain level, when it comes to the future, the only thing one can be sure of is that common sense will be wrong. There is no magic twenty-year cycle; there is no simplistic force governing this pattern. It is simply that the things that appear to be so permanent and dominant at any given moment in history can change with stunning rapidity. Eras come and go. In interna tional relations, the way the world looks right now is not at all how it will look in twenty years . . . or even less. The fall of the Soviet Union was hard to imagine, and that is exactly the point. Conventional political analysis suf fers from a profound failure of imagination. It imagines passing clouds to be permanent and is blind to powerful, long-term shifts taking place in full view of the world.
If we were at the beginning of the twentieth century, it would be impossible to forecast the particular events I’ve just listed. But there are some things that could have been—and, in fact, were—forecast. For example, it was obvious that Germany, having united in 1871, was a major power in an insecure position (trapped between Russia and France) and wanted to re define the European and global systems. Most of the conflicts in the first half of the twentieth century were about Germany’s status in Europe. While the times and places of wars couldn’t be forecast, the probability that there would be a war could be and was forecast by many Europeans.
The harder part of this equation would be forecasting that the wars would be so devastating and that after the first and second world wars were over, Europe would lose its empire. But there were those, particularly after the invention of dynamite, who predicted that war would now be cata strophic. If the forecasting on technology had been combined with the fore casting on geopolitics, the shattering of Europe might well have been predicted. Certainly the rise of the United States and Russia was predicted in the nineteenth century. Both Alexis de Tocqueville and Friedrich Nietzsche forecast the preeminence of these two countries. So, standing at the beginning of the twentieth century, it would have been possible to forecast its general outlines, with discipline and some luck.
forecasting a hundred years ahead
Before I delve into any details of global wars, population trends, or technological shifts, it is important that I address my method—that is, precisely how I can forecast what I do. I don’t intend to be taken seriously on the de tails of the war in 2050 that I forecast. But I do want to be taken seriously in terms of how wars will be fought then, about the centrality of American power, about the likelihood of other countries challenging that power, and about some of the countries I think will—and won’t—challenge that power. And doing that takes some justification. The idea of a U.S.–Mexican con frontation and even war will leave most reasonable people dubious, but I would like to demonstrate why and how these assertions can be made.
One point I’ve already made is that reasonable people are incapable of anticipating the future. The old New Left slogan “Be Practical, Demand the Impossible” needs to be changed: “Be Practical, Expect the Impossible.” This idea is at the heart of my method. From another, more substantial per spective, this is called geopolitics.
Geopolitics is not simply a pretentious way of saying “international relations.” It is a method for thinking about the world and forecasting what will happen down the road. Economists talk about an invisible hand, in which the self-interested, short-term activities of people lead to what Adam Smith called “the wealth of nations.” Geopolitics applies the concept of the invisi ble hand to the behavior of nations and other international actors. The pursuit of short-term self-interest by nations and by their leaders leads, if not to the wealth of nations, then at least to predictable behavior and, therefore, the ability to forecast the shape of the future international system.
Geopolitics and economics both assume that the players are rational, at least in the sense of knowing their own short-term self-interest. As rational actors, reality provides them with limited choices. It is assumed that, on the whole, people and nations will pursue their self-interest, if not flawlessly, then at least not randomly. Think of a chess game. On the surface, it ap pears that each player has twenty potential opening moves. In fact, there are many fewer because most of these moves are so bad that they quickly lead to defeat. The better you are at chess, the more clearly you see your options, and the fewer moves there actually are available. The better the player, the more predictable the moves. The grandmaster plays with absolute predictable precision—until that one brilliant, unexpected stroke.
Nations behave the same way. The millions or hundreds of millions of people who make up a nation are constrained by reality. They generate lead ers who would not become leaders if they were irrational. Climbing to the top of millions of people is not something fools often do. Leaders understand their menu of next moves and execute them, if not flawlessly, then at least pretty well. An occasional master will come along with a stunningly unexpected and successful move, but for the most part, the act of governance is simply executing the necessary and logical next step. When politi cians run a country’s foreign policy, they operate the same way. If a leader dies and is replaced, another emerges and more likely than not continues what the first one was doing.
I am not arguing that political leaders are geniuses, scholars, or even gentlemen and ladies. Simply, political leaders know how to be leaders or they wouldn’t have emerged as such. It is the delight of all societies to belittle their political leaders, and leaders surely do make mistakes. But the mistakes they make, when carefully examined, are rarely stupid. More likely, mistakes are forced on them by circumstance. We would all like to believe that we— or our favorite candidate—would never have acted so stupidly. It is rarely true. Geopolitics therefore does not take the individual leader very seriously, any more than economics takes the individual businessman too seriously. Both are players who know how to manage a process but are not free to break the very rigid rules of their professions.
Politicians are therefore rarely free actors. Their actions are determined by circumstances, and public policy is a response to reality. Within narrow margins, political decisions can matter. But the most brilliant leader of Ice land will never turn it into a world power, while the stupidest leader of Rome at its height could not undermine Rome’s fundamental power. Geopolitics is not about the right and wrong of things, it is not about the virtues or vices of politicians, and it is not about foreign policy debates. Geopolitics is about broad impersonal forces that constrain nations and human beings and compel them to act in certain ways.
The key to understanding economics is accepting that there are always unintended consequences. Actions people take for their own good reasons have results they don’t envision or intend. The same is true with geopolitics. It is doubtful that the village of Rome, when it started its expansion in the seventh century BC, had a master plan for conquering the Mediterranean world five hundred years later. But the first action its inhabitants took against neighboring villages set in motion a process that was both constrained by re ality and filled with unintended consequences. Rome wasn’t planned, and neither did it just happen.
Geopolitical forecasting, therefore, doesn’t assume that everything is predetermined. It does mean that what people think they are doing, what they hope to achieve, and what the final outcome is are not the same things. Nations and politicians pursue their immediate ends, as constrained by reality as a grandmaster is constrained by the chessboard, the pieces, and the rules. Sometimes they increase the power of the nation. Sometimes they lead the nation to catastrophe. It is rare that the final outcome will be what they initially intended to achieve.
Geopolitics assumes two things. First, it assumes that humans organize themselves into units larger than families, and that by doing this, they must engage in politics. It also assumes that humans have a natural loyalty to the things they were born into, the people and the places. Loyalty to a tribe, a city, or a nation is natural to people. In our time, national identity matters a great deal. Geopolitics teaches that the relationship between these nations is a vital dimension of human life, and that means that war is ubiquitous.
Second, geopolitics assumes that the character of a nation is determined to a great extent by geography, as is the relationship between nations. We use the term geography broadly. It includes the physical characteristics of a location, but it goes beyond that to look at the effects of a place on individuals and communities. In antiquity, the difference between Sparta and Athens was the difference between a landlocked city and a maritime empire. Athens was wealthy and cosmopolitan, while Sparta was poor, provincial, and very tough. A Spartan was very different from an Athenian in both culture and politics.
If you understand those assumptions, then it is possible to think about large numbers of human beings, linked together through natural human bonds, constrained by geography, acting in certain ways. The United States is the United States and therefore must behave in a certain way. The same goes for Japan or Turkey or Mexico. When you drill down and see the forces that are shaping nations, you can see that the menu from which they choose is limited.
The twenty-first century will be like all other centuries. There will be wars, there will be poverty, there will be triumphs and defeats. There will be tragedy and good luck. People will go to work, make money, have children, fall in love, and come to hate. That is the one thing that is not cyclical. It is the permanent human condition. But the twenty-first century will be extraordinary in two senses: it will be the beginning of a new age, and it will see a new global power astride the world. That doesn’t happen very often.
We are now in an America-centric age. To understand this age, we must understand the United States, not only because it is so powerful but because its culture will permeate the world and define it. Just as French culture and British culture were definitive during their times of power, so American culture, as young and barbaric as it is, will define the way the world thinks and lives. So studying the twenty-first century means studying the United States.
If there were only one argument I could make about the twenty-first century, it would be that the European Age has ended and that the North American Age has begun, and that North America will be dominated by the United States for the next hundred years. The events of the twenty-first century will pivot around the United States. That doesn’t guarantee that the United States is necessarily a just or moral regime. It certainly does not mean that America has yet developed a mature civilization. It does mean that in many ways the history of the United States will be the history of the twenty-first century. “
Disclaimer: Written deliriously at 4AM
I have found myself tossing restlessly in bed several nights this last week, plagued by a guilt that I wasted the summer away. This sensation arises from my ambition, not my memory; it comes because I consider the task of this summer to have been study, and when I reflect upon the studies I successfully completed these three months, I find that I did not attain anywhere near what in June I hoped to. A few essays out of dozens, a couple books out of scores, this blog, some research with a professor- I tasted a mere drop of the ocean of scholarly knowledge I hoped to drink.
And then I recall that I did not see a good many of the friends I hoped to see, either- my list of people to visit sits by my side, only a a few names checked. So many old faces I vowed to see, and indeed I saw them! But only in my mind.
Beyond these two broad areas, a dozen other goals I had taunt me from realities which will never be. I didn’t get a job. I couldn’t find an internship. I promised a friend I would send her letters over the summer- I only sent her one, and it came back stamped ‘Address not Valid.’ I failed to pay my tributes at the shrines of Jefferson or Madison, Hamilton or Washington, Adams or Franklin. I spent far too much time in front of a computer, and far too little time in the beauty of Virginia.
I tell my Dad of this, and he spends hours coaxing me out of my paranoia. (I love my Dad- I don’t think he knows precisely what the right thing is to say, but everything he says is epic, and he usually says enough of it that I’ve forgotten my anxiety by the time I stop him.)
And today, after a similar grey period followed by one of Dad’s pep talks, I took a run for the first time in several weeks. People say periodic and regular exercise makes you healthier and happier, and the empirical evidence I have observed points to the truth of this aphorism. The cloud-mountains high in the sky soaked up the sun’s gleaming, dying rays; the warm moisture of the Earth emanating from the pavement and dirt below us carried on it scents of beautiful decay; the green darkness of the forest peaked between branches and trunks; and the bugs and birds sang that riotous chorus of Virginia’s evening woods, deficient in the machine-gun chirps of Washington’s squirrels but fully recompensing for the loss in sheer volume of insects. Half my senses drank this in, the other half attentively listening to my Dad’s sermon-on-the-run on leadership.
The run, as every run on a normal day so magically tends to do, expelled all bad feelings previously lurking about my heart. And in this lightened state, some pictures of summer came to mind.
Lifting and placing great flat boulders in a muddy gulch. (Michael Bell and the Appalachian Trail Club accompanied me.) Paddling the Foleys’ kayak up through the shallow, narrow rapids of Aquia Creek, where John Smith once dared not go. (Eventually I had been turned back by the creek’s sheer impassibility in its upper reaches.) Parading about northwest Washington, D.C. with my family, Jake and Zach and I fully suited in our Class A Scout uniforms, seeking out (by code) sites and markers critical to our Boy Scout heritage. Schmoozing around in a restaurant with my colleagues (or FRIENDS) from SCIR, and moving tables about in a Starbucks, by the pure generosity of our hearts, with friends and colleagues from Near Crisis. Discussing with Artur Galystan the secrets and gossip of SIR business and success. Long hours in the trusty old minivan, all of us kids asleep, talking to Dad about politics. Upon a windy summit in the front range of the Appalachians, a summit called Old Rag, the best, Virginians say, in the State. Visiting with Jake’s friends, good friends of mine too, in the weeks after Jake’s graduation. The dignity and fun of the graduation day, the majesty of the hundreds of black-robed students in the heat of the sun, and the timeless stillness in the light of the Christmas lights put up in our yard- those greatest decorations. Grueling days of toil and sweat in a land we once called home, Carlisle, moving furniture for Uncle Steve and Aunt Jackie to their new hilltop abode. More grueling days doing much the same for our good friends, the Foleys. Long drives across the vastness of the mountains, through the heart of Appalachia, a true America if there ever was one. Pleasant visits with cousins and uncles and aunts and grandparents, our blood, in Columbus, Ohio. Nights tending the fire, admonishing those who follow, watching the sparks journey to the height of the sky, there forever to keep their vigil in their extinguishment. The sins of the strip of Myrtle Beach, a center of young-people’s vacationing which, though it need not be returned to, must be visited. The sweet taste of rain contrasted to the salt of the sea, in the rare pleasure of a rainy day at the beach. Historic forts and headlands, houses and markers, proofs of a time that once was in Charleston, and never again will be. A speech delivered by Ehud Olmert, while all around me the ants of Washington stood listening. A thousand hours in the heady traffic of Washington, and a thousand country roads whose charm was in their place. Treasured books found in forgotten stores and basements, some given as gifts, some dirt-cheap, from the Civil War Store out in Wilderness to Grandma’s house to the antique shack in Fredericksburg. Pretty girls in the coffee shop Hyperion who should have been embarrassed by my compliments, had I been brave enough to give them. Spacious sandbars in the river’s midst, at Aquia Landing, wondrous places to view the orb of the sky in all its mighty glory. A fat cat who we call ours, who calls us hers. Meteors which cast their cuts ever quickly, lightning storms miles off which appeared to me as purple flashes in the night, the prettiest damn thing I have ever seen. The seventeen thousand candlebags in the Fredericksburg Cemetery that night, flickering in geometric pattern, showcasing the seventeen thousand souls buried beneath, dead by cause of failed politics. A raucous ride o’er the battlefield, through its woods; a less well-thought out one through up the mountain of Jefferson, one where I found in myself a thirst to explore; a fine, if rushed, tour on bike of Charlottesville. A bus trip to Knoxville after a pleasant evening atop mighty Union Station; a good few days with Heather Duncan, then; and a tour of Knoxville and a good trip back, talking to strangers. Fireworks on the carrier Yorktown on the day of our nation’s birth. Lawnwork and more lawnwork for Mom in our backyard. Festivals and fairs in the parking lot of our Church. Thoughts on the shore of the Potomac. Helpful hands in Francis House. Walks in that hall of heroes, the Marine Corps Museum.
All this, which I recall at this ungodly hour, does not even begin to list adequately all the things I did this summer.
It turns out that I did not truly waste summer, after all. It was chock full of a good many things which I would never have gotten to do had I not been home with my family.
I will return to USC content that I did not waste my time, that I in fact utilized my vacation as a vacation ought to be utilized. Now next summer I may very well spend in scholarship and work. But I will bear in mind that, so long as memories are made and life is lived, no time is truly wasted.
To answer simply, yes. The individual, by taking part in any action, holds a part of the responsibility for the consequences of that action, though never the whole, for other factors are always present. I do not view this in a legal context so much as in a causal context. Because there are an inestimable number of factors driving every event, those factors each hold a proportional share- though I doubt an accurate readout of those shares is attainable by us humans.
This is the historian in me speaking, and the historian in me finds the political rhetoric of today to be utterly ridiculous- Republicans insisting that the current debt crisis and the chaos in the Arab world are Obama’s fault entirely, Democrats placing the debacle of the Iraq War and the financial collapse entirely on Bush’s shoulders. And the fallacy of demonization and (angelization?) I see in politics, I see in most other ethical questions.
My main exposure to the thought experiment you present has been on the topic of rape. As you know, a large majority of feminists (and generally decent people) is so disgusted by cases of rape, that they place the entirety of the responsibility upon the shoulders of the rapists. And I agree with them in sentiment- women are not at fault for being raped, and rapists, in a just world, would be castrated and given the mark of Cain. But when I come to think of cases by themselves, it seems that girls can hold some agency in their NOT being raped, and thus in their being raped. For example, why would a girl choose never to return to a frat house in which she was raped? BECAUSE SHE KNOWS THAT FRAT HOUSE IS SEXUALLY MORE DANGEROUS THAN OTHERS, and that crimes there are less likely to be prosecuted. And therefore by avoiding that frat house she is taking a certain degree of responsibility in not letting herself get raped. And for the same reason she might choose to wear slightly more modest clothing, to get a little less drunk, to stop accepting drinks from strangers, to never go out without friends, to carry mace, or to do a host of other things which, in all honesty, will probably lessen her chances of being raped. If she were simply to assume that all boys are nice and responsible gentlemen, she [would be] making the very mistake which Machiavelli so callously cautions us against.
And rape is not the only scenario where this is the case. As a girl who goes out without adequately protecting herself did nothing to stop her rape, so a man who ventures into the wilderness without adequate survival gear does nothing to prevent his own death, a soldier who ventures on patrol without informing his superiors or comrades does nothing to stop his own capture, and a statesman who fails to pursue his nation’s security and prosperity does nothing to forestall the ruin of his own country.
Therefore, to a degree, everyone is partly responsible for everything that happens to them, more particularly those things which are foreseeable risks. We are cast out of the safety of the womb into this brutal, beautiful, and unpredictable world, and it is luck and wisdom which perpetuates our life. (Luck includes all external factors, including the care and love of others and a safe situation, while wisdom includes everything emanating from within us. I will not discuss divine interference here- that is another conversation.)
It would seem that a great many things, tragedies especially, most notoriously our own deaths, cannot be our own fault in any way. But I believe we do hold a share of the responsibility for at least our reactions to things that happen to others [and us,] and in our own death, the fact that we chose life. But this expands my answer to a level of metaphysics which I normally do not consider, and is in any case not pertinent to my answer to your question.
The last thing that must be addressed is the role of personal responsibility. As you will see in an essay I publish on my blog eventually, I do not believe anyone has any intrinsic rights, and I believe that believing passionately in one’s own rights creates a sense of entitlement which harms one’s humility in the face of greater things, one’s endurance in the face of unjust hardship, and one’s responsibility in the face of conflicting rights and duties.
Now if a person enamored with their rights was at fault for some grave crime, undoubtedly they would justify their conduct by the alignment of their actions with their rights. And if someone enamored with their rights failed to conduct an important duty, more likely than not they would argue that their rights trumped their duties. And this sort of demeanor, I cannot stand- and therefore I have always elevated duty above rights in my pyramid of virtues.
And, to use the thought experiment you first posed to me, I would infinitely trust someone with a car who saw it as his duty to protect human lives, over someone who saw it as his right to drive a car.
[In truth, this can only be one aspect of the wider phenomena of events, and I do not believe any person capable of accurately producing a workable theory of happenstances. I merely hope to illustrate one aspect.]
As per Obama, (I need to write a blog post on this) I think he is a principled but amateur liberal, pragmatic in foreign affairs only because he has been forced to be (and badly at that- the first two years saw a series of misinformed blunders in high politics, though his handling of the war on terror has been at least sufficiently vicious; but his crisis management has been Carteresque, as Libya and the bumbling Arab Spring statements seem to indicate. His team is a divided bunch of people and I question whether he knows what he wants in foreign policy other than a liberal world order which is slowly but surely evading his grasp.) He is skilled at playing domestic politics, having managed to push through landmark legislation, and he is charismatic enough to mobilize his own supporters; but he is not charismatic enough to either bridge the partisan gap or attract sufficent moderates to create a majority, and while I disagree with the accusations that he is any more divisive than any other President, he certainly doesn’t have the Americanaesque speaking style which has defined the greats. I think if any principle dominates the White House today it is confusion.
Since my political evolution, I have always tried to give Obama the benefit of the doubt. But [I have been disappointed again and again.] He does not appear to be incredibly competent in foreign affairs, nor a particularly unitary leader on the domestic front. Due to the fact that politics is always in flux, the shifting power bases give hostile commentators ample evidence to (wrongly, I think) suggest that Obama is seeking a monopoly on power and a destruction of the Constitution, and as the President is not particularly skillful, certain programs (such as the increased drone strikes, etc) which have been started out of frustration with the failures of other methods, have provided yet more ‘evidence’ for commentators trying to paint the president as bent on seeking more power.
I will probably hold similar views of every president in my lifetime though.
[This is by no means a conclusive review of my opinion. If Fate permits, I will record my complete opinion in another post sometime in the near future.
My thought on the Presidency in general and Obama’s presidency in particular has been unduly influenced by such radical moderates as George Friedman, Robert Kaplan, and Walter Russell Mead.
Abiasedperspective fully supports the President, and wishes him the best of luck in steering the ship of state through the turbulent waters it will surely pass through before his term is over.]