Work and Days

The State of the Union

What is America—and is it worth defending?

I spoke on campuses recently and listened to a number of students discuss issues of immigration, national identify, and the old race/class/gender conundrum. What struck me were two things: the unwillingness of young Americans in the audience to define, much less in thought or speech to defend their civilization. And I noted the paradoxical criticism of the United States by those who have just arrived on our shores.

Why would any wish to come to a country that they almost immediately fault—that takes more legal immigrants alone than all other countries combined? Is it that such contrariness earns acceptance from our own cynical and nihilistic elite? As I pointed out to these audiences, rarely do Americans in turn define newcomers here by the sins of their homeland.

Imagine, I went on, if Chinese students were reminded that the antecedents of their current government since 1945 murdered or starved to death 70 million of their own?

Should the Indian immigrant be reminded of suttee and the caste system?

The students seemed a little stunned, but had picked up the current American campus trait of thinking that if the United States can be shown not to be perfect, it is therefore not good—and that no one would dare to question the moral principles, or consistency, by which they press their own moralistic attack on the United States.

We worry about the Patriot Act. Castro and Hugo Chavez end free speech. We worry about morality in foreign policy, China contracts with the Sudan and Iran for all they can get. We worry about the glass-ceiling, the Islamic world doesn’t mention much about polygamy or female circumcision. We worry about the religious Right, Saudi Arabia arrests those with bibles. The world abroad, these students sometimes forget, does not operate on the principles of the campus library or student union.

Because the US is increasingly a country of the mind, not defined by race or ethnic background anymore, it becomes more, not less, critical to agree on a shared language, values, and respect for a unique past—if we are not simply to descend into tribalism. We are not a Japan or Saudi Arabia that can fall back on race or religion, when the notion of nationhood falters. We only have common ideals, a history, a language, and a Constitution. It is not written in stone that these exist in perpetuity without periodical homage and defense. So criticize the US when it deserves it; point out our flaws, but understand that the alternatives are far worse—and for a variety of reasons that are rarely any more discussed.

China?

What amazes is the pass given China, not only about its bloody past, or its authoritarian present, but also about its cutthroat international hooliganism, whether violating copyright laws, shooting missiles into space, or cutting oil and mineral deals with the worst regimes imaginable, as well as absolute intransigence over Tibet. Something about those Mao suits and revolutionary fumes provide exemption among the usual hothouse leftist critics.


Five Wars for Iraq

Right now the United States is fighting the fifth—not the first—war for Iraq.

I. 1991

The first was in 1991 when America liberated Kuwait from Saddam Hussein. Either out of deference to the United Nations coalition, or Arab sensitivities, it did not remove that savage dictator. An exempt Saddam then subsequently murdered thousands of Shiite and Kurdish dissidents. Americans were upset that for all the military brilliance of Gulf War I, it ended inconclusively. The peace apparently set off as much violence in Iraq as the war in Kuwait had intended to prevent.

II. No-Fly Zones

So in response, a second twelve-year war followed under Presidents George Herbert Bush, Bill Clinton, and George Walker Bush. From 1991 to 2003, America enforced no-fly zones, while the United Nations conducted embargoes and weapons inspections. Despite its length and cost, and the corruption by the United Nations, America suffered almost no battle casualties in this second conflict. Thousands of malnourished Iraqis, however, died due to Saddam’s manipulation of sanctions.

III.The Three Week War

After September 11 a majority of both Democrats and Republicans had had enough of 350,000 sorties, a decade of violations by Saddam, the corruption of the Oil-for-Food program, and the suffering of the most vulnerable of Iraqi society. So yet a third war ensued.

This time a brilliant three-week effort finally removed Saddam Hussein for good, one authorized by both houses of Congress that basked in the postbellum support of 70% of the American people. All were buoyed that the final end of the murderous Baathists was achieved at amazingly little cost.

IV.The Reconstruction

But the peace proved more difficult than the three-week fighting. And from 2003 through 2005, there was yet a fourth war to establish an Iraqi democracy to prevent the emergence of another petrodollar dictator with imperial ambitions.

This war was the costliest of the four, taking over 2,000 American lives and billions in aid. Terrorists—mostly ex-Baathists, Wahhabi jihadists, and al Qaedists—sought to ruin the lives of Iraqis and overturn the verdict of three surprisingly successful Iraqi national elections.

Iraqi War IV sputtered inconclusively with neither the United States able to quell the Sunni-inspired violence nor the terrorists able to force the coalition to leave and install a theocracy in its place.

V. Gangs and Militias

And now we are in yet a fifth sort of war that for most of 2006 has cost another 1000 American lives. Frustrated Shiites, many egged on by an opportunistic and theocratic Iran, finally ran out of patience and began to retaliate against Sunni terrorists. Both Shiites and Sunnis militias now kill Americans and each other—a bellum omnium contra omnes. Each carves out its own spheres of influence in efforts to collapse the elected central government in Baghdad.

Oil or Not?

We can learn lessons from these five wars. First they are—and are not—over oil. The United States does not wish to steal Iraqi oil—indeed we gave back to both the Kuwaitis and Iraqis themselves complete control over the petroleum that Saddam had appropriated when we had it in our power not to. Rather, the United States does not want one of the world’s chief supplies of energy to fall under the control of a madman nor the resulting petrodollar bonanza once more recycled into frightful weapons.

Why Iraq?

Second, Iraq is the linchpin of the Middle East, sitting in the middle of the oil-exporting Gulf sheikdoms, Israel and the Palestinians—and an unpredictable Iran. Stabilize the country with a constitutional government and the Middle East moderates. Allow a Saddam or his jihadist successors to invade or attack neighbors and the entire region unravels.

Bipartisanship

Third, until recently, Americans fighting in some fashion in Iraq did so by bipartisan sanction during seventeen continuous years. Bush I conducted the first Gulf War with support from Democrats in Congress. Bill Clinton continued the no-fly-zones, bombed Saddam, and warned against weapons of mass destruction. Bush II got the approval of a majority of congressional Democrats to remove Saddam. Only recently, following the 2006 election rebuke, has the policy become partisan—and costly— enough to question its continuance.

Currently the majority of Americans and the Democratic Party have had enough. They feel that either that the Iraqis are simply not worth the cost in American blood or treasure, or that our withdrawal won’t make that much difference either way. Only a shrinking number of Republicans still insists that by historical standards America has done surprisingly well in removing Saddam and fostering democracy—and we can still stabilize that achievement with a year or two more of costly custodianship.

Iraq Will Find Us

Fourth, and most importantly, Iraq won’t go away. Its strategic location, its natural wealth and importance to the world economy, worries over Iran, regional nuclear proliferation, proximity to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, and the pan-Arabic factional fighting and international terrorism, all that and more explain why, whether under Democrats or Republicans, we were engaged in Iraq in some fashion for the last 17 years.

We may not wish to find Iraq, but it always seems to find us.

Why No Westerns?

After the last post, someone wrote me asking why can’t we make a good western these days? A number of reasons come to mind. The multicultural rage has sort of defined the genre as a perpetual Dancing With Wolves, or at least no homage is to be given to the sort-of Sophoclean Ajax profile that framed a Shane or Will Cane, the persona that had given up on society’s plodding rules, and so went it alone. Very non-communitarian. Very preemptive and unilateral. Or as the Europeans say—very cowboyish.

More mundanely, it’s hard to find a Ben Johnson/Slim Pickens accent or even a manly Bill Holden/Alan Ladd/John Wayne manner in Hollywood anymore. That slightly southern/western, slightly rural, slightly drawly accent has passed away and it is hard to replicate, especially with the increasing nasalization of the metrosexual American male accent. A few like Tommy Lee Jones or Robert Duvall could of course play wonderful westerners, but then they are of a passing generation as well.

Yet I think the public would greet an authentic western, with a young against-the-grain actor, playing a role where a craggy single figure (of questionable past) pulls down the temple of the status quo for a principle.

The Land Was Everything

That was a title of a book I once wrote about farming. Since that publication, my siblings have sold out or stopped farming, the local town is now very near, and housing is zoned less than a mile away. My 43 acres of vines are aging. I rent the vineyard out now, and prices for raisins still are not break-even. So something has to be done, as I talk about the future with my 24-year old son. Either we finish remodeling the house, and tear out the vines and plant something more easily mechanized (a project from $3000 to $5,000 per acre), or give up and accept the future.

After about a minute’s deliberation, I decided to put a new kitchen in the 130-year old house that my great-great grandmother built. And I will try to start earning some money to lose it by fixing up the place (new pump, laser-leveling, extra drip irrigation system, patented trees to plant) for the next generation’s turn. I hope to be done by 60.