Work and Days

War, Punditry, and Farming

Will the Center Hold?

Depression apparently abounds these days. In the latest Time, Robert Galluci, the present Dean of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, pleads with us to talk to North Korea (“Let’s Make a Deal…”)—as if their present plutonium stockpiles did not originate during the Big Talk of the 1990s under the Carter/Clinton shuttles, or that a regime that has recently starved to death over 1 million of its own cares much about either talking or honoring anything that might come out of such discussions.

And why should Pyongyang concede anything, when its past talking, dissimulation, and nuclear enrichment earned it both a bomb and billions in food and fuel? All the communists need to do is update the discussions: instead of promising not to build a bomb, they can now promise not to test another bomb in exchange for more largess. Then after they let off accidentally, kinda of a second blast, they will promise not to launch a three-stage missile—for more cash, and on and on, all in the Rhineland/Anschluss/Sudenland/Poland manner.

Short a horrific war, about the only thing that will make Kim Jong Il cease is Chinese pressure—and about the only thing that might prompt the Chinese to pressure North Korea is the specter of successful, rich, and angry democracies, such as Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan pointing their newly acquired nuclear missiles at Beijing. All things considered, the thought of such states making nukes like Toyotas is a far scary nightmare for China that North Korea’s Taepodong missile is for us.

On the same pages, Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council of Foreign Relations, writes an essay “Would Defeat in Iraq Be So Bad?” in which he harkens back to Vietnam circa 1975, concluding that after we were defeated and fled ignominiously, the dominos did not fall in Southeast Asia and thus things were not all that “bad”. He is apparently forgetting the 1.5 million who were the boat people, and those sent to reeducation camps or executed, and the millions who lived since under communist totalitarianism rather than something like South Korea, and the holocaust in Cambodia that a chastised United States did not dare address, and the other late 1970s’ ripples like the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Central American mess, the Iranian hostage crisis, and a nearly ruined and disheartened American military that followed from the perception of a defeated and demoralized United States.

The Metrosexual Mob

Watching and reading the recent Washington punditry, whether in print or on television, is a depressing spectacle. Almost all—Charles Krauthammer is the most notable exception—have somehow triangulated on the war, not mentioning why and how in the B.C. days they sort of, kinda, not really called for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. For some the Road to Damascus was the looting or Abu Ghraib, for others the increasing violence. Still more now say the absence of WMD did the trick.

But almost none of the firebrands of 2003 speaks the truth behind the facade: They supported the war when it looked like few casualties and a quick reconstruction and thus confirmation of their own muscular humanitarianism—and then bailed along the way when they realized that wasn’t going to happen and the unpopular war might instead brand them as “war mongers”, “chicken-hawks” or just fools.

Instead of that honest admission, we get instead either cardboard cut-out villains of the “my perfect three-week war, your screwed-up three-year occupation” type—a Douglas Feith, Gen. Sanchez, or Paul Bremmer—or all sorts of unappreciated and untapped brilliance: from trisecting the country to “redeploying” to Kurdistan, or Kuwait, or Okinawa?

Apparently pundits think that the entire country has gone crazy and lost its memory that almost every cable news talking head, Time magazine pundit, Washington Post insider, and syndicated columnist—other than those at the Nation and the American Conservative—at the beginning supported the present war.

I have no problem with the notion that the perceived pulse of the battlefield governs ongoing attitudes toward the wisdom of conducting war—only with the denial of that truth. Pericles, after all, was fined after both the plague and Spartans roaming the fields of Attica disabused once zealot supporters that “his” war was going to be short. And a motion for censure of Churchill in July 1942 was discussed when the British were depressed after the fall of France, Singapore, and Tobruk, and knowledge that neither Bomber Command nor British forces in North Africa had done much to check Hitler. In contrast, had the United States had a republic secure and up and running in Baghdad 3 months after the end of the three-week war, at a cost of say, 400, fatalities, missing Weapons of Mass Destruction and all other the other complaints would not have been real issues, as supporters would have pointed to the other 22 writs of war in the October 2002 Congressional resolutions that are as valid now as they were then.

Wisdom and Idiocy in Farming

I can recall, comparing great things to small, the same changing wisdom in farming: pick grapes early for a safe drying period for raisins; or pick late to ensure a sweet ripening grape for a better raisin. If September was dry and hot, then the late guys who saved their heavy sweet raisins were geniuses; but if it rained, the early pickers who at least salvaged their crops when no one else could were considered brilliant.

But some September mornings it would cloud up and threaten; then the neighbors almost hourly would praise the early pickers as visionaries. But by afternoon when the clouds blew away and the sun appeared, the same critics would blast those who had their grapes prematurely on the ground as idiots who panicked and would have “wheaties” not raisins due to their sour grapes on the tray.

I wrote about the daily changing wisdom in Fields Without Dreams, and how fickle human nature is, rather than looking at things in a tragic sense that there are no great choices, but often just bad and worse, and that wisdom is predicated mostly on the perception of success. In 1982 I picked early and thereby avoided a horrendous tropical storm that ruined the industry, saving thereby 200 tons of raisins that sold for over $1400 a ton; in 1983 I picked early again, the clouds blew away, and in weeks of perfect weather I produced lousy, sour, and light raisins, selling scarcely 140 tons for $400 and lost far more than I had made the year before. I was neither a genius the year before, nor a fool the next, but rather did the best I could in both years, recognizing that we are still subject to fate, despite our vaunted technology and knowledge. I am not advising helplessness, simply some recognition that the verdict is out on Iraq, and what looks bad today, might look far better very soon—and that erstwhile supporters turned vehement critics might well reinvent themselves a third time.

Presidential hopefuls

The Hoover Institution has been hosting Presidential hopefuls. The latest visitor was Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney who spoke to, and received questions from, the Senior Fellows yesterday. For about one hour, he heard some tough inquiries, answered without notes, kept his cool, and talked analytically rather than in platitudes. I was impressed, and came away thinking that being a conservative governor in Massachusetts must have sharpened his debating skills and given him insights about dealing with the therapeutic mindset. I don’t know what he thought of us, but most of us thought him quite impressive.