Sunday, February 04, 2007

David Brooks taught a course at Duke and is worried about the future of the Republican party. Then we have Nicholas Kristof on literary parallels. Dick Cheney as Lord Voldemort works for me… Finally, as a Sunday treat, we have Frank Rich explaining “Why Dick Cheney Cracked Up.” First, let’s get Bobo out of the way:

Last fall, I taught a political theory course at Duke University, as part of my lifelong quest to teach at every college I never could have gotten into out of high school. I asked my students to write a paper defining their political philosophy, because I thought it would be useful for them to organize their views into a coherent statement.

When I look back on those papers (which the students have given me permission to write about), I’m struck by the universal tone of postboomer pragmatism.

Today’s college students, remember, were born around 1987. They were 2 or 3 when the Berlin Wall fell. They have come into political consciousness amid impeachment, jihad, polarization and Iraq. Many of them seem to have reacted to these hothouse clashes not by becoming embroiled in the zealotry but by quietly drifting away from that whole political mode.

In general, their writing is calm, optimistic and ironical. Most students in my class showed an aversion to broad philosophical arguments and valued the readings that were concrete and even wonky. Many wrote that they had moved lately toward the center.

Remington Kendall, for example, grew up on a struggling ranch in Idaho. His father died when he was young and his family was poor enough at times to qualify for welfare, though his mother refused it. Duke, with its affluence and its liberal attitudes, was a different universe.

Kendall arrived deeply conservative and remains offended by people who won’t work hard to support themselves. But he now finds himself, as he says, cursed by centrism — trapped between the Pat Robertsons on the right and the Democratic elites on the left, many of whom he finds personally distasteful.

He has come to admire the prairie pragmatists, like Montana’s Jon Tester and Brian Schweitzer. In a long conversation with his brother Sage, who works on the ranch, Kendall decided that what the country needs is a party led by “entrepreneurial cowboy politicians” with a global perspective.

Jared Mueller grew up in a liberal enclave in Portland, Ore., and like Kendall is able to afford Duke thanks to financial aid.

He came to Duke with many conventional liberal attitudes, but he’d seen the failures of the schools in his neighborhood, where many of his smartest friends never made it to college. He’s a big fan of school vouchers and now considers himself a moderate Democrat: “I’m a Democrat because I think the Democratic Party is a better vehicle for the issues I care about: balancing the budget, checking President Bush’s foreign policy and curtailing global warming. However, I’ll switch to the Republicans in a heartbeat if I believe my ideas are better received in the G.O.P.”

For many students, the main axis of their politics is not between left and right but between idealism and realism. They have developed a suspicion of sweepingly idealistic political ventures, and are now a fascinating mixture of youthful hopefulness and antiutopian modesty.

They’ve been affected by the failures in Iraq (though interestingly, not a single one of them wrote about Iraq explicitly, or even wanted to grapple with the Middle East or Islamic extremism). But they’ve also seen government fail to deliver at home. A number wrote about the mediocrity of their local public schools. Several gave the back of their hand to the politics of multicultural grievance.

Many showed a visceral distaste for people who are overly certain or unable to see some truth in the other side. One student, Meng Zhou, quoted one of our readings from Reinhold Niebuhr: “A too confident sense of justice always leads to injustice.” Another, Kevin Troy, cited a passage from Max Weber’s essay “Politics as a Vocation”: “Politics means slow, powerful drilling through hard boards, with a mixture of passion and sense of proportion.”

If my Duke students are representative, then the U.S. is about to see a generation that is practical, anti-ideological, modest and centrist (maybe to a fault).

That’s probably good news for presidential candidates like Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton, whose main selling point is their nuts-and-bolts ability to get things done.

But over all it’s bad news for Republicans. While the G.O.P. was once thought of as the practical, businesslike party, now most of my students see the Republicans as the impractical, ideological party — on social and science issues as well as foreign and domestic policy.

That’s not the way to win the children of polarization.

Next up is Mr. Kristof:

Dick Cheney as Lord Voldemort?

A reader named Melissa S. e-mailed to say that she explains Iraq policy to her 8-year-old son in terms of Harry Potter characters: “Dick Cheney is Lord Voldemort. George W. Bush is Peter Pettigrew.” Don Rumsfeld is Lucius Malfoy, while Cornelius Fudge represents administration supporters who deny that anything is wrong. And, she concludes, “Daily Prophet reporter Rita Skeeter is Fox News.”

That was one of the 400 comments from readers offering literary or historical parallels to the Bush administration and Iraq. One of the most commonly cited was Xenophon’s ancient warning, in “Anabasis,” of how much easier it is to get into a Middle Eastern war than out.

As a reader named John H. summarized “Anabasis”: “Ten thousand Greek mercenaries march from Greece to Iran to effect regime change (unseat one emperor and establish his younger brother). They win the first few battles (cakewalk, mission accomplished) but then the younger brother is killed.”

So the invaders found themselves without an effective prime minister to hand power to, yet they were stuck deep inside enemy territory. Xenophon’s subtext is how the slog of war corrodes soldiers and allows them to do terrible things. Xenophon is particularly pained when recounting a massacre that was the Haditha of its day.

The readers who sent in comments were responding to a column I wrote last month arguing that President Bush is inadvertently a fine education president, because he breathes new life into the classics. Thucydides’ account of the failed “surge” in the Sicilian expedition 2,400 years ago is newly relevant, and “Moby Dick” is interesting reading today as a bracing warning of the dangers of an obsessive adventure that casts aside all rules. (You can submit your own favorite literary or historical parallel at

Perhaps I’m cherry-picking from the classics to support my own opposition to a “surge” in Iraq. In writing this column, I wondered what classics Mr. Bush’s supporters would cite to argue for his strategy. Shakespeare’s “Henry V”? “Hamlet”?

Yet frankly, it’s difficult to find great literature that encourages rulers to invade foreign lands, to escalate when battles go badly, to scorn critics, to be cocksure of themselves in the face of adversity. The themes of the classics tend to be the opposite.

Literature and history invariably counsel doubt and skepticism — even when you think you see Desdemona’s infidelity with your own eyes, you don’t; even when your advisers are telling you “it’s a slam-dunk,” it’s not. The classics have an overwhelmingly cautionary bias, operating as a check on any impulsive rush to war.

Perhaps that is because, as Foreign Policy argues in its most recent issue, humans have an ingrained psychological tilt to hawkishness. In many ways, the authors note, human decision-making tends to err in ways that magnify conflict and make it difficult to climb down from confrontation.

My hunch is that the classics resonate in part because they are an antidote to that human frailty; literature has generated so many warnings about hubris in part to save us from ourselves.

Eastern classics have that same purpose of trying to tame and restrain us. The central theme of Chinese philosophy is the need for moderation, and Sun Tzu’s famous “Art of War” advises generals on how to win without fighting. (Sun Tzu and Julius Caesar alike also appreciated the diplomatic benefits of treating enemy prisoners well; they would be appalled by Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo.)

So Mr. Bush should resolve that for every hour he spends with Mr. Cheney, he will spend another curled up with classical authors like Sophocles. “Antigone,” for example, tells of King Creon, a good man who wants the best for his people — and yet ignores public opinion, refuses to admit error, goes double or nothing with his bets, and is slow to adapt to changing circumstance.

Creon’s son pleads with his father to be less rigid. The trees that bend survive the seasons, he notes, while those that are inflexible are blown over and destroyed.

Americans today yearn for the same kind of wise leadership that the ancient Greeks did: someone with the wisdom to adjust course, to acknowledge error, to listen to critics, to show compassion as well as strength, to discern moral nuance as well as moral clarity. Alexander the Great used to sleep with the “Iliad” under his pillow; maybe Mr. Bush should try “Antigone.”

Oh, and for Mrs. Bush? How about Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata”?

To see the full list and to comment on this column visit "On the Ground."

And now here’s Frank Rich explaining Lord Voldemort’s tantrum:

In the days since Dick Cheney lost it on CNN, our nation’s armchair shrinks have had a blast. The vice president who boasted of “enormous successes” in Iraq and barked “hogwash” at the congenitally mild Wolf Blitzer has been roundly judged delusional, pathologically dishonest or just plain nuts. But what else is new? We identified those diagnoses long ago. The more intriguing question is what ignited this particularly violent public flare-up.

The answer can be found in the timing of the CNN interview, which was conducted the day after the start of the perjury trial of Mr. Cheney’s former top aide, Scooter Libby. The vice president’s on-camera crackup reflected his understandable fear that a White House cover-up was crumbling. He knew that sworn testimony in a Washington courtroom would reveal still more sordid details about how the administration lied to take the country into war in Iraq. He knew that those revelations could cripple the White House’s current campaign to escalate that war and foment apocalyptic scenarios about Iran. Scariest of all, he knew that he might yet have to testify under oath himself.

Mr. Cheney, in other words, understands the danger this trial poses to the White House even as some of Washington remains oblivious. From the start, the capital has belittled the Joseph and Valerie Wilson affair as “a tempest in a teapot,” as David Broder of The Washington Post reiterated just five months ago. When “all of the facts come out in this case, it’s going to be laughable because the consequences are not that great,” Bob Woodward said in 2005. Or, as Robert Novak suggested in 2003 before he revealed Ms. Wilson’s identity as a C.I.A. officer in his column, “weapons of mass destruction or uranium from Niger” are “little elitist issues that don’t bother most of the people.” Those issues may not trouble Mr. Novak, but they do loom large to other people, especially those who sent their kids off to war over nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and nonexistent uranium.

In terms of the big issues, the question of who first leaked Ms. Wilson’s identity (whether Mr. Libby, Richard Armitage, Ari Fleischer or Karl Rove) to which journalist (whether Mr. Woodward, Mr. Novak, Judith Miller or Matt Cooper) has always been a red herring. It’s entirely possible that the White House has always been telling the truth when it says that no one intended to unmask a secret agent. (No one has been charged with that crime.) The White House is also telling the truth when it repeatedly says that Mr. Cheney did not send Mr. Wilson on his C.I.A.-sponsored African trip to check out a supposed Iraq-Niger uranium transaction. (Another red herring, since Mr. Wilson didn’t make that accusation in the first place.)

But if the administration is telling the truth on these narrow questions and had little to hide about the Wilson trip per se, its wild overreaction to the episode was an incriminating sign it was hiding something else. According to testimony in the Libby case, the White House went berserk when Mr. Wilson published his Op-Ed article in The Times in July 2003 about what he didn’t find in Africa. Top officials gossiped incessantly about both Wilsons to anyone who would listen, Mr. Cheney and Mr. Libby conferred about them several times a day, and finally Mr. Libby, known as an exceptionally discreet White House courtier, became so sloppy that his alleged lying landed him with five felony counts.

The explanation for the hysteria has long been obvious. The White House was terrified about being found guilty of a far greater crime than outing a C.I.A. officer: lying to the nation to hype its case for war. When Mr. Wilson, an obscure retired diplomat, touched that raw nerve, all the president’s men panicked because they knew Mr. Wilson’s modest finding in Africa was the tip of a far larger iceberg. They knew that there was still far more damning evidence of the administration’s W.M.D. lies lurking in the bowels of the bureaucracy.

Thanks to the commotion caused by the leak case, that damning evidence has slowly dribbled out. By my count we now know of at least a half-dozen instances before the start of the Iraq war when various intelligence agencies and others signaled that evidence of Iraq’s purchase of uranium in Africa might be dubious or fabricated. (These are detailed in the timelines at The culmination of these warnings arrived in January 2003, the same month as the president’s State of the Union address, when the White House received a memo from the National Intelligence Council, the coordinating body for all American spy agencies, stating unequivocally that the claim was baseless. Nonetheless President Bush brandished that fearful “uranium from Africa” in his speech to Congress as he hustled the country into war in Iraq.

If the war had been a cakewalk, few would have cared to investigate the administration’s deceit at its inception. But by the time Mr. Wilson’s Op-Ed article appeared — some five months after the State of the Union and two months after “Mission Accomplished” — there was something terribly wrong with the White House’s triumphal picture. More than 60 American troops had been killed since Mr. Bush celebrated the end of “major combat operations” by prancing about an aircraft carrier. No W.M.D. had been found, and we weren’t even able to turn on the lights in Baghdad. For the first time, more than half of Americans told a Washington Post-ABC News poll that the level of casualties was “unacceptable.”

It was urgent, therefore, that the awkward questions raised by Mr. Wilson’s revelation of his Africa trip be squelched as quickly as possible. He had to be smeared as an inconsequential has-been whose mission was merely a trivial boondoggle arranged by his wife. The C.I.A., which had actually resisted the uranium fictions, had to be strong-armed into taking the blame for the 16 errant words in the State of the Union speech.

What we are learning from Mr. Libby’s trial is just what a herculean effort it took to execute this two-pronged cover-up after Mr. Wilson’s article appeared. Mr. Cheney was the hands-on manager of the 24/7 campaign of press manipulation and high-stakes character assassination, with Mr. Libby as his chief hatchet man. Though Mr. Libby’s lawyers are now arguing that their client was a sacrificial lamb thrown to the feds to shield Mr. Rove, Mr. Libby actually was — and still is — a stooge for the vice president.

Whether he will go to jail for his misplaced loyalty is the human drama of his trial. But for the country there are bigger issues at stake, and they are not, as the White House would have us believe, ancient history. The administration propaganda flimflams that sold us the war are now being retrofitted to expand and extend it. In a replay of the run-up to the original invasion, a new National Intelligence Estimate, requested by Congress in August to summarize all intelligence assessments on Iraq, was mysteriously delayed until last week, well after the president had set his surge. Even the declassified passages released on Friday — the grim takes on the weak Iraqi security forces and the spiraling sectarian violence — foretell that the latest plan for victory is doomed. (As a White House communications aide testified at the Libby trial, this administration habitually releases bad news on Fridays because “fewer people pay attention when it’s reported on Saturday.”)

A Pentagon inspector general’s report, uncovered by Business Week last week, was also kept on the q.t.: it shows that even as more American troops are being thrown into the grinder in Iraq, existing troops lack the guns and ammunition to “effectively complete their missions.” Army and Marine Corps commanders told The Washington Post that both armor and trucks were in such short supply that their best hope is that “five brigades of up-armored Humvees fall out of the sky.”

Tomorrow is the fourth anniversary of Colin Powell’s notorious W.M.D. pantomime before the United Nations Security Council, a fair amount of it a Cheney-Libby production. To mark this milestone, the White House is reviving the same script to rev up the war’s escalation, this time hyping Iran-Iraq connections instead of Al Qaeda-Iraq connections. In his Jan. 10 prime-time speech on Iraq, Mr. Bush said that Iran was supplying “advanced weaponry and training to our enemies,” even though the evidence suggests that Iran is actually in bed with our “friends” in Iraq, the Maliki government. The administration promised a dossier to back up its claims, but that too has been delayed twice amid reports of what The Times calls “a continuing debate about how well the information proved the Bush administration’s case.”

Call it a coincidence — though there are no coincidences — but it’s only fitting that the Libby trial began as news arrived of the death of E. Howard Hunt, the former C.I.A. agent whose bungling of the Watergate break-in sent him to jail and led to the unraveling of the Nixon presidency two years later. Still, we can’t push the parallels too far. No one died in Watergate. This time around our country can’t wait two more years for the White House to be stopped from playing its games with American blood.


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