Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Sunday, April 11, 2004
 
National Security, Character and Politics


This is a long post. I hope you'll find it useful. I think it's vitally important we all take a deep breath and prepare to think a little lengthily, a little earnestly, about where we're going. It may not be fun or amusing, but I think it's important.

Read Fred Kaplan's Slate Piece Condi Lousy, about National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice's Thursday testimony.


Read more!


Then take a look at the The New Republic, April 12 & 19, page 13: "Both Houses--Everyone failed to fight terrorism," by Martin Peretz
(Click here for a link for digital subscribers, which I am not.) If you can't get a copy, here is one interesting passage:


"One of the few high-level officials who comes off well in Clarke's book is Vice President Al Gore. Twice during the Clinton administration, Gore led attempts to enhance the security of air travel. If the salient suggestions of his two efforts--one a commission focused on airline safety and security, the other his reinventing-government initiaitve that sought to reform the relevant bureacracies (including the FAA)--had been put into effect, the United States would have been less vulnerable to Atta and his colleagues. The Gore commissions recommendations--high tech baggage screening for explosives and better training for screeners--are now mandatory. But at the time, they were undercut by airline lobbyists and Republican congressmen. Even more controversial (and potentially valuable) were the commision's recommendations for passenger screening, which, a former Gore aide involved in both studies told me, were killed by Democratic congressmen and the American Civil Liberties Union. Other ideas--for protective devices in cockpits and sky marshals--were shelved by the commission when it became clear they too would be politically impossible. (Even The New Republic doubted their value.) Some of the Gore recommendations were put into effect within a week after September 11, but not all."




Here is the now declassified August 6 Presidential Daily Briefing.

Al Gore was an extremely proactive Vice President, engaged more substantially in the work of governing than any previous Vice President in memory, if not longer. It is a fair guess that he would have appointed a National Security Adviser similarly averse to passivity. Gore was also known for drawing connections between obscure pieces of information, and seeing their importance even when it was not obvious to many other politicans--hence his work on the internet. It seems highly likely that if the PDB above had crossed his desk on August 6, he would certainly have remembered the recommendations of his own commission. A workaholic President Gore would probably not have taken a month-long vacation---and would have done his best to use this new intelligence and his status as President as leverage in implementing measures he could not push through as Vice President.





The same issue of The New Republic has an interesting piece by Franklin Foer (subscriber's link) called Teenage Wasteland, describing the means by which John Kerry managed to offend the moneyed majority at his Episcopalian boarding school, St. Pauls (which he attended because of a childless aunt's charity.):

"Kerry responded strongly to his outsider status, compensating for it by working hard and intensely craving success. . . Unfortunately for Kerry, his boarding school comrades regarded ambitions as a cardinal sin . . .Where most of his colleagues viewed admission to Harvard and Yale as a fait accompli, Kerry stressed over his collegiate future. . . .Achievement wasn't frowned upon. But you were supposed to downplay your accomplishments, to make them look effortless. . .So, instead of winning him respect, Kerry's hard work earned him the derision of his classmates. . . .How then to explain the preppy hatred for Kerry? In part, the answer has to do with the changing times. During the late '50s and early '60s, the blue bloods' grip on power was coming to an end. For a long time, St. Paul's and the other New England boarding schools were the Ivy League's main pipeline. Every year, St. Paul's sent about half its class to Harvard and Yale. By the end of the '60s with the introduction of the SAT and a new democratic spirit in the admissions offices, that era of dominace had ended. As William F. Buckley lamented in a 1968 Atlantic piece, "You will laugh, but it is true that a Mexican-American from El Paso High with identical scores on the achievement tests, and identically ardent recommendations from the head-master, has a better chance of being admitted to Yale than Jonathan Edwards the Sixteenth from St. Paul's School." With his hardworking style, Kerry represented the new meritocratic ethic, where success wouldn't depend on blood and charm but the earnest accumulation of achievements. Of course, Kerry may simply not have been very likeable. But, at least in part, Kerry was hated because he embodied the emerging reality that the old insular world could no longer be so insular.
Strangely, the decline of the New England boarding school's prestige has hardly diminished their capacity for producing politicans . . .During his campaign for Kerry's Senate seat, Weld famously jumped into the Charles River, highlighting his devil-may-care attitude toward politics. . .The media actually wants Kerry to become more patrician, not less; to discover his inner WASP, and to adopt a carefree attitude."




From James Perry's review of Douglas Brinkley's book "Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War" in the April issue of Washington Monthly:

"In spite of the danger and madness of the mission, Kerry in many ways loved the experience. He was a product of an elite boarding school (St. Paul's) and an elite university (Yale). In his entire life,* he had never mingled with such a collection of working-class Americans. The men who served with him came to admire, respect, and in time, from all indications, love him. They show up with him now on the stump, and their presence animates him. They do represent a band of brothers, and that speaks volumes for his character."




And now for a dose for the kind of self-important "look-at-me-as-I-buck-conventional-wisdom" cliched commentary we are in for, in waves, courtesy of Anthony Swofford in the April Issue of Details Magazine:

"If George W. Bush Spent one political season in Alabama ditching his National Guard duty, canvassing door-to-door 11 weekends and two weeks that year rather than twiddling his thumbs at a reserve base, who cares? Democrats rightfully cried foul when the Republican hyenas wanted to know the exact location of Bill Clinton's penis on various dates tduring thelate 1990s. So why must the Democrats now attempt to skewer Bush on a similarly benign issue? Bush's National Guard duty is superficial because was stateside Guard duty. He'd already dodged Vietnam thanks to his father's influence. That the affluent of this country do not fight its wars should be news to no one.
A mentor and close friend of mine avoided Vietnam by enrolling in graduate school. I am happy that my friend di not go to Vietnam and die or suffer a horrible injury. He did more important work than running jungle patrols and sitting ambush with a Claymore in his hands. . . .
By all accounts, John Kerry was a brave and selfless soldier on the muddy and deadly rivers of Vietnam. But the important questions about his political fitness will not be answered by the injured Green Beret he pulled from the bullet-thick currents. Nor will George W. Bush's presidential aptitude be buttressed by accounts of his days spent reading aircraft-safety manuals on a base in Alabama. Both men must prove to the electorate that they are capable of leading our country during war and peace . . .
That John Kerry led combat river patrols in Vietnam while George Bush led fight songs during his tenure as a Yale cheerleader maybe interesting--the latter even downright amusing. It's also wholly unimportant."




I recall that in the 2000 Democratic convention, Tipper Gore narrated a slideshow biography of her husband's life, and when she got to the war she paused to add, pointedly, "which we opposed," before continuing. A commentator remarked that this single phrase pointed out that the Gores were the kind of people who, even as college students, thought deeply about national politics and issues of national security and developed opinions on them--and that a similar slideshow of George W. Bush's life at the time would be rather vapid.

Let me count the ways in which Details gets it wrong and Washington Monthly gets it right.
1) First of all, any proof that GWB spent his campaigning time canvassing door to door?
2) Secondly, the Guardsmen who today face years in jail for running away from a war that has killed at least 363 of them. If the allegations are true, Bush has never suffered any penalty for running away from benign flying duty.
3) This, as are most, comparisons between Bush's character crimes and Clinton's are incredibly disingenuous and idiotic. Clinton never went about enacting policy that affected other people's sex lives. (Well, he did sign the DOMA, but that more accurately affected people's domestic lives.) Bush has enacted policy that very much affects peoples live's in the military. Therefore his life in the military is a bit more relevant.
4) Yes, many people dodged the draft to go to graduate school, including Clinton. Their time is, indeed, well accounted for if you believe, as John Kerry did, that the war was a colossal mistake and waste. The time of George Bush, however, is not.
5) It is not simply a matter of saying, "Ah well, one man chose to ride out this colossal waste of life in one manner and another man chose to ride it in another." If this were any other job, and we were looking these men's resumes, we would want to know what skills and propensities and types of character they had displayed in these formative years of their lives. Even reserving judgement about the politics of Vietnam and draft-dodging, the fact is very simple. John Kerry showed himself to be competent, intelligent and brave, capable of thinking on his feet, and winning over and leading a band of men who were not totally loaded down with a prepackaged, inherited set of prejudices against him. These are all highly transferable skills. George Bush has almost nothing to show for the analagous years in his life.

Yet I am afraid we are in for more of this superficial analyses and easy dismissal of hard work and intelligence. The Washington Monthly article (and presumably Brinkley's book) is quite astonishing, painting as it does a portrait of a man younger than me thinking and reading deeply in the most adverse conditions, and writing to his parents, about philosophy, war, strategy, and international politics. For some crazy reason we as a nation seem incapable of even guessing that a lifetime of hard work and intellectual engagement might actually be useful in the man who acts as commander-in-chief, and is responsible for integrating information from sources like, say, Presidential Daily Briefings, and deciding how to act on them. Unlike the snooty St. Paul's crowd and its misguided admirers, I, for one, desperately want a man in charge who is not afraid of trying hard and working hard, and who has shown that throughout his life. I, for one, desperately want the man who reads those daily intelligence briefings not to have a devil-may-care attitude towards politics. I want the man in charge to instill in his underlings a sense of fiery earnestness and initiative. I want someone who will lead his staff by example, such that his secretaries and advisers won't need scapegoats to blame for not making recommendations. If we can't convince our fellow Americans that this it is in our dire best interests to find the man who best fits that description, and put him in charge, then I worry very much about what future disasters lie ahead.

I also feel that reason and evidence clearly show that there will be a great difference between a man who has spent his life thinking about issues of national security and working hard on them, and a man who has not. Take a look around this world today, and considering nothing else but skillsets, as if you were simply hiring a businessman or an administrator, ask yourself honestly if there is no difference between Al Gore and George Bush. Keep the answer to that question in mind if someone tries to tell you that there is no difference between John Kerry and George Bush.



* Regarding Kerry's "elite" background and the novelty of his exposure to working-class men: Even liberals generally only apply the elite label to liberals---George Bush's background is equally elite (Andover and Yale), and less meritocratic. I haven't read Douglas Brinkley's book, but it seems possible that he did not detail Kerry's pre-college years yet, because I think Perry is wrong in this assertion that Kerry had never before associated with working-class people. From Foer's article:
"While his classmates summer in Europe (or even took private jets to the Continent for long weekends), Kerry spent his breaks working as a Teamster in Somerville, Massachussetts, for the First National Stores, loading food onto trucks."
 


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Saheli Datta started this when she was a journalism student at Columbia in New York. Now she lives in the Bay Area. *Old people call me R. New people, call me Saheli. Thanks! My homepage. Specifically, my links. Email me: Saheli [AT] Gmail [dot] Com

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Blogs I Read (Or Try To)
113th Street
american footprints(Nadezhda & Praktike)
ANNA's Diary
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Scott Rosenberg(Salon.com)
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Matthew Yglesias:Old
Yglesias:Tpmcafe
Zoo Station:Reuben Abraham
Ethan Zuckerman
Zwichenzug



Some Categories

Blogs focusing on policy, politics, and national security:
Armchair Generalist
Back To Iraq 3.0 (Chris Albritton)
The Decembrist
Brad DeLong
Daniel Drezner
Eschaton(Atrios)
Green Ink!
Iddybud (Jude Nagurney Camwell)
Idea Spout: Daniel Sanchez
Informed Comment: Juan Cole
Intel Dump: Phillip Carter
The Intersection (Chris Mooney)
Irregular Analyses
Jesus Politics
Mark A. R. Kleiman
Liberals Against Terrorism(Nadezhda & Praktike)
Political Animal(Kevin Drum, formerly Calpundit)
Talking Points Memo: Joshua Micah Marshall
War and Piece
Wonkette
Yglesias:Tpmcafe

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Daily Dose of Imagery
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TiffinBox

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Apartment Therapy
Back To Iraq 3.0 (Chris Albritton)
Campaign Desk (CJR)
Ranajit Dam
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Alexandra Huddleston
InSpiteOfEverything
Corey Pein
Nick Schager
Zoo Station:Reuben Abraham

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Electrolite: Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Scott McCloud


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