Work and Days

History, Europe, and Our Elections

The Great Historical Questions

Why Northern Europe?

I received a lot of questions the last few weeks about why Mediterranean peoples in Italy and Greece who crafted Western civilization eventually faded before Northern Europeans (tribal barbarians during a thousand years of Greco-Roman civilization), and especially Anglo-American culture.

A couple of observations. First, and most obviously, northern Europeans derived their own Western culture only through the classical inheritance. Second, by the 7th century Islam was on the move, and the Mediterranean and Eastern European states were a sort of buffer belt for the next 1,000 years—as the once classical bastions like northern Egypt, Ionia, Greece, Sicily, Cyprus, and Crete were serially overran. Third, geography was turned upside down, as Mare Nostrum became a sort of dead-end pond, while Spain, Portugal, France, England, and Holland had access to the Atlantic, and with it a direct route to India and China, and the Americas. Fourth, England was spared much of the internecine squabbling on the continent, developed a sort of cosmopolitanism and globalized presence as an island and imperial sea-people, and was able to develop a stronger sense of Protestantism, setting the stage for an Anglo-American global ascendancy.

American Decline?

Another reader wondered whether the United States is now in irrevocable decline, while India, Russia, China, Japan, and Europe reemerge to assume our once global prominence.

I doubt it. All of those countries have far more fundamental problems that we do. India is mired in poverty and overpopulation, prone to religious violence and burdened by a caste system. Russia is a neo-Czarist thugocracy, a $100-a-barrel oil price plastering over the otherwise corrupt and inefficient Russian economy, and a shrinking Russian population. China has not yet come to grips with class strife and unionism, suburban malaise, and must spend hundreds of billions in infrastructure. Its environmental degradation will take years and trillions to repair.

Europe is shrinking, as its socialist/secular/pacifist/heaven-on-earth creed has brought short-term prosperity and stability, but also millions of unassimilated Muslims, no defenses in the face of rising jihadism, possible rogue nuclear states like Iran and North Korea, and a bullying Russia, and a sybarite culture founded on the premise that the here and now is all there is.

In short, America’s natural wealth, its meritocracy and legions of different races, religions and tribes that are united under meritocratic values, its superb military, its past avoidance of doctrinaire political extremism, whether fascism, militarism, Nazism, communism, or jihadism, and its ability to react and galvanize almost overnight, all suggest we can rather quickly, should we wish, defeat any foreign enemy, get off our costly dependence on foreign oil, close our borders and end illegal immigration, begin to spend less federal money, promote more individual savings, balance budgets, pay off foreign debt, and restore our financial preeminence—if we get honest charismatic and competent candidates who can appeal to the better angels of our nature.

No War New Under the Sun

Finally, a reader wrote in and asked whether the ancient world offered any parallels in our modern war on jihadism.

Plenty.

Preemption? In 369 BC Epaminondas decided that the Spartans were a non-ending threat. And while the latter had not invaded in over a year and a half, and probably wouldn’t, he nevertheless considered them an existential and immediate danger, and so went into the Peloponnese in winter 369, ravaged Laconia, freed the Messenian helots, and spread democracy by force through the creation of the three great citadels at Mantineia, Megalopolis, and Messenê. Sparta never again invaded Boiotia.

Preventative War? Consider Rome’ Third Punic War, where Carthage represented no immediate threat (far less than Sparta posed for Thebes), and yet Romans went to war to end their unrelenting fear of a reemergence of a North African empire.

Counterinsurgency? The Romans dealt with magnetic nationalist leaders like Boudica, Jugurtha, Mithridates, and Vercingetorix that required fighting terrorists, winning hearts and minds, and fighting unconventional wars.

A War Against Terror? Pompey’s successful war against the pirates, mostly from Cilicia, was waged against a tactic more than a state or people.

Asymmetrical warfare? Athens fought Sparta largely by sea, Sparta by land—until the last bloody decade of the Peloponnesian War. In hellholes like Aitolia and Akarnania conventional Athenian hoplites were bled white by terrorists, light-armed, and missile-troops. Alexander fought a dirty war of ethnic cleansing in Bactria and southern Afghanistan that cost him more losses than in his three conventional battles against the Persians.

In other words, nothing we have encountered since 9/11 is new. All our current challenges have parallels, and they have been faced—and overcome—by past conventional Western leaders. Classical literature reminds us how and why. Human nature is constant, only its technological manifestations change. For every bin Laden there was an Arminus, for every Ahmadinejad there was a Jugurtha, for every David Petraeus there was a successful Sertorius in Spain or Caesar in Pontus.

We are not alone, and nothing we encounter is novel. Millions in the past experienced everything we have, though on a quite different magnitude, and we can learn about almost everything in present by reading from the past.

Sidenote to the May-June European Tour

Our debate/discussion on the future of Europe at the Trianon Hotel at Versailles is shaping up well, with Bruce Thornton and, it looks like, a prominent French intellectual/diplomat soon to be announced. And we hope to have a good tour of Nato headquarters, and similar discussion and debate that evening. Visits to Somme, Verdun, Waterloo, etc. should give us some appreciation of the burdens of European history, and why the European Union frightens us more than it does Europeans wearied by centuries of deadly squabbling.

Empathy for the Candidates

I confess a certain sympathy for the candidates. They are up at dawn and out till late night. Many are over 60. Three have survived melanoma, prostate cancer, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. They must be obsequious in the face of often arrogant and stupid questioners ,who try to bait and embarrass them. Less bright media talking heads bully them incessantly. What they wear, how they look, or the blunders they make are the evening small talk of millions. And all this for the Presidency?

So there is a certain Darwinian logic to our process. Any who survive our modern political agôgê, both mentally and physically, are apparently certified to be able to be President.

Change?

The Obama-Edwards-Romney-Huckabee mantra of change, means what? One would hope something like the old contract for America to insist on spending cuts, and thus ensure necessary tax cuts don’t lead to deficits. Contrary to conventional “change” wisdom, what should we do differently abroad?

Any new ideas on Pakistan? Huckabee and Obama want to invade. Richardson wants to depose Musharraf.

And Iraq? Edwards’ timetables on withdrawal?

How about Iran? Formal diplomatic negotiations á la Obama?

The truth is that there are no good alternate choices on Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, or the general Middle East. Someone did something right to have killed thousands of al Qaeda operatives, avoided another September 11, and deposed the Taliban and Saddam.

Perhaps “change” means balanced budgets, paying off the debt, paying down trillions of dollars overseas? If so, that would be something indeed, but no candidate seems to man up to that. So we are left with a sort of “I’m an outsider” reminiscent of Jimmy Carter’s Plains stchick, or the “new ideas” of Gary Hart. But as Walter Mondale once asked, “Where’s the beef?”

The Fox Debate Tonight

I got a lot of abuse for writing the “Old Warhorse” column for TMS syndicate. It was not an endorsement, but an acknowledgment that McCain’s appeal sort of transcends ideology and is based on his blunt talk—whether telling Iowans that subsidies for ethanol are misplaced, or club-for-growth types that tax cuts without spending limitations only discredit the necessary idea of shrinking government to increase economic prosperity.

He supported the Petraeus surge at a time when other moderate Republicans were about to bail (and his persistence helped give Petraeus the window of time for the surge to work and deflate the defections). And when he was wrong, there was a logic to his fallacies. His immigration lapses, and subsequent demonization of those who wanted the borders closed now, were based on the correct enough notion that we can’t deport en masse 11 million illegal aliens, many of whom have resided here for years, are law-abiding, and are not on public assistance, but gainfully employed. He was too iffy on tax cuts, but mostly because he wanted them tied to mandatory spending reductions.

And the disastrous McCain-Feingold grew out of a correct appreciation that the cash for favors nexus in our political culture needed addressing.

On the surge, it should be noted, however, that in 2004 McCain and others were calling for an additional 100,000 troop surge, opposed by Casey, Abezaid, and Rumsfeld. The current smaller Petraeus surge was a compromise, and predicated on counter-insurgency reforms.

In this regard, I think McCain is to be congratulated for his stalwart support for Iraq. But while Petraeus is clearly the right man at the right time for the right job, I don’t understand the serial damning of Donald Rumsfeld. I am not convinced that had Casey or Abezaid asked for more troops, Rumsfeld would have resisted. There is a way to take some credit for the brilliant Petraeus surge without suggesting that Rumsfeld was incompetent, or, as once alleged, one of the worst secretaries of Defense in history—untrue, unnecessary, and unbecoming.

And the other candidates?

When Romney attacks and goes negative, he loses empathy. But when ganged upon, Romney’s natural sunny disposition shines through, and we start to see less of the slickness, and more of the quite impressive control of facts and ideas. As a side note, Romney may talk tough about being against amnesty in any form, but if so, then he needs to explain how we deport 11 million, at least 5-6 million of whom have been here over five years, are gainfully employed, not on public assistance, and have never been arrested. It is easy to declaim “I am against amnesty in all forms”, but rather difficult to say, “Therefore I urge we deport summarily every Mexican national, no matter his circumstances.” Somehow we hear the former, but rarely the latter.

In this Sunday night’s debate on Fox, I think Huckabee’s limitations become more and more evident. His impressive character and unquestioned conservatism on social issues seem to me outweighed by a sort of tentativeness, and relative inexperience in foreign affairs at a time of war. We should expect that it will be likely in early 2009 that the jihadists or an Iran or Syria will deliberately test our new president, and try to make inroads by forcing him to either back down or use military force.

Giuliani always comes across well, whether candidly admitting his errors, or in pulling no punches about the jihadists. I like him a great deal, but think if one wishes a moderate, McCain has a better chance to defeat Obama or Hillary. Most polls continue to show that he is the only Republican who can win a general election—an important consideration given that an Obama or Clinton presidency would be as self-righeously wrong-headed as Jimmy Carter’s

As for the Democratic candidates, I posted tonight the following at NRO’s corner.

O Hillary, Where Art Thou?

Poor Hillary is in a Catch-22 dilemma—and there’s no Dick Morris to bail her out. Bill’s constant presence, campaign gaffes, and serial narcissism contributed to her slide, reminding Americans that his ubiquitous picture on the screen, her incessant references to her work in his administration, and the specter of 28 consecutive years of Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton rule are about the farthest thing from “change” imaginable.

And then there is the Freudian problem. It is not altogether clear that his own desire for another eight years of the limelight overshadows a deep-seeded resentment and envy of his wife, who might, as the first-female president, and a liberal who avoided tawdry scandal, overshadow the prior Clinton’s legacy. In that regard, remember Bill’s 1992 revealing concession— “It doesn’t bother me for people to see her and get excited and say she would be president too.”

As Hillary slides, there were will be logical calls to raise his “it doesn’t bother me” profile, due to his “stature,” “savvy” and “experience.” But when one wonders why Hillary’s negatives poll nearly 50%, we should also remember that in neither election Bill achieved a 50% plurality, either due to third-party candidates or innate worries about his character that trumped his successful triangulating politics.

Sen. Obama looks unbeatable, especially since Hillary’s campaign was well funded, did almost everything by the book, and still is imploding. When John Edwards drops out–and he will–most of his money, supporters, and voters will probably go to Obama.

But all that said, Obama’s charisma and ex tempore rhetorical skills have a shelf life without concrete positions. The war in Iraq is no longer a key issue, so against it “from the beginning” does not resonate so much any more. Where does Obama stand on closing the border and amnesty? Does he want to raise taxes or cut spending to pay for his new programs, themselves poorly delineated.

If he doesn’t get specific, his “change” mantra will be like Gary Hart’s “new ideas” that Mondale deflated in 1984 with the “where’s the beef?” debate quip that Bob Beckel turned into a campaign stop staple.

Expect her to go for the jugular on all that and more. To the extent she can on her own, without a beet-red Clinton shaking his finger at a Chris Wallace, or fibbing about being against the war from the start, she might recover.