Great Moments in Conservative Thought: Glenn Beck Edition

I know that it has become both fashionable and easy to mock Glenn Beck – he is the low-hanging fruit of conservative television punditry. However, last Sunday I actually bothered to watch part of his show for the first time.

While he is certainly correct that short-term crises can lead to long-term erosion of rights, I still feel the need to propose a new rule:

No reporter, commentator, or pundit (liberal or conservative) should be allowed access to a printing press, camera, or microphone until they can define, compare/contrast, and use in context the major political movements of the 19th and  20th centuries: socialism, liberalism and nationalism; fascism, communism, and totalitarianism. This is high school European history, not rocket science. “Fascist” is not synonmous with “bully.”

Published in: on April 19, 2009 at 12:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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On the Origin of Pirates

I write this from a position of relative ignorance on the issue of the Somali pirates, except for that information widely available in the press. However, after reading this article from the New York Times, I felt empowered to make some mildly dubious gratuitous historical comparisons to two periods of piracy along the Chinese coast.

Despite the headline, the article mostly discusses the Obama administration’s efforts to downplay the likelihood of expansive military action, especially raids against pirate bases on shore. However, with both NATO and EU anti-piracy forces in the region, it is clear that more military solutions are being sought. This should not be the only course of action. Piracy, like banditry, is largely a product of economic circumstance and the weakness of local government – these causes must be addressed in addition to military action.

More on the flip. (more…)

Published in: on April 15, 2009 at 4:03 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Bush Legacy: Messianic Imperialism

In February 2000, historian Geoffrey Parker delivered two lectures entitled The World is Not Enough: The Imperial Vision of Philip II of Spain. The title came from a motto, Non Sufficit Orbis, that Philip had struck on a commemorative medallion. The motto later came to be incorporated into the Royal Arms and is indicative of Philip’s strategic vision.

Parker describes Philip’s vision as ‘messianic imperialism’:

Philip II believed absolutely that his interests coincided with those of God. “You are engaged in God’s service and in mine, which is the same thing.” (pp. 21-22).

He argues that this produced a “zero-defects mentality” in the king, which rendered him unable to consider the possibility of failure or to create fall-back strategies.

First, Philip believed that God had chosen him to rule expressly to achieve His purpose for the world. Second, he was equally convinced that God held him under his special protection, to enable him to achieve these goals (although the process might prove neither obvious nor easy.) Third, he felt certain that, if necessary, God would intervene directly in order to help him to succeed. (p. 30)

Above all, Philip II’s conviction that he was doing God’s work made him unrealistic in his strategic planning, and inflexible whenever his subordinates complained that his orders seemed impossible. (p. 35)

Parker’s lectures contain a litany of such occurrences, one of which is a striking and well-known example – the Spanish Armada.

I first read these lectures in the Fall of 2004, by which time it was clear to all observers that the Iraq war was not under control. We hadn’t been greeted as liberators and the grateful populace was taking an opportunity to express their ‘appreciation’. And yet, in the midst of this catastrophe, President Bush continued to speak of the war as divine providence. I was immediately struck by the similarities between this messianic vision and that of Philip II.

Consider this quote from the conclusion of the 2003 ‘mission accomplished’ speech:

All of you — all in this generation of our military — have taken up the highest calling of history. You are defending your country, and protecting the innocent from harm. And wherever you go, you carry a message of hope — a message that is ancient, and ever new. In the words of the prophet Isaiah: “To the captives, ‘Come out!’ and to those in darkness, ‘Be free!”‘

Likewise this 2005 column by Al Kamen in the Washington Post:

“But Bush has said similar things on other occasions,” Brubaker noted, citing Bob Woodward‘s “Plan of Attack,” where Bush says he’s “surely not going to justify the war based on God . . . Nevertheless . . . I pray I be as good a messenger of his will as possible.”

” ‘Messenger of his will [or] God speaks through me,’ ” Brubaker wrote. “The difference seems rather fine.”

In the end, of course, Philip II’s imperial vision failed. No amount of divine providence, which wasn’t particularly forthcoming, could prevent the unraveling of an empire based on far-flung and tenuously held possessions. And yet, at no time is a strategic withdrawal attempted. Parker identifies four reasons for the persistence of this failed vision: 1) Spaniards shared Philip’s view of Spain as an instrument of God’s will; 2) artists, writers, and clerics also endorsed Philip as a rex et sacerdos and shared his divine vision; 3) the King’s ministers also shared this outlook, linking service to the King as service to God; and 4) there was no other competing strategic vision.

At the end of a presidency, and this presidency in particular, if I may respectfully disagree with the President-Elect, it is a time for both looking forward and looking back. I don’t wish to over-stretch the comparison, but there are lessons to be learned from Philip II. The four elements identified above were also present in Bush’s America. There were those who linked the President’s mission with God’s mission. Even those that didn’t arrived at secular equivalents: the President was doing freedom’s will, or, even more dangerously, an unquestioning faith in the presidency itself. And, finally, strategic alternatives were all but ignored, unless they were being mocked, until well into the 2008 election.

After Philip II’s death, this same messianic vision, this belief in a divine course for Spain and her monarch, persisted until the collapse of the Hapsburg dynasty in 1700. We, ourselves, are standing on a precipice. Already we are turning away. Withdrawal from Iraq is inevitable, and discussions on whether to withdraw from Afghanistan have already begun. The callous self-confidence of the Bush administration should fade into a more deliberative decision making process in the new Obama presidency. Our foreign policy promises to be more rational and reality-based.

However, the seeds of a new messianic presidency have already been planted. A joke during the campaign, nevertheless a number of Obama supporters argue that we shouldn’t challenge him; that we should trust him to know best because he is Obama. We must not allow ourselves to replace one Priest-President with another. Questioning the President and keeping a skeptical eye on his vision are vital to rational policy making.

In the last few months, George Bush has attempted to secure his legacy. Consider his farewell address:

I have followed my conscience and done what I thought was right. You may not agree with some tough decisions I have made. But I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions.

What we must remember from the Bush presidency is not his willingness to make tough decisions, but rather the reckless confidence with which they were made. If we treat Barack Obama as a messiah, then a messiah will be what we deserve – delusions and all.

Update: To clarify, I don’t think that Obama thinks of himself as a messiah, in any way. However, there does appear to be a cult of personality among some of his followers, and that is what I find disturbing. We must discontinue not only the past eight years’ strategic approach to the world, but also the approach to how we view the president.