15 December, 2006Issue 6.1Politics & SocietyWorld Politics

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Pitchers of Warm Piss

John-Paul McCarthy

Bruce Kuklick
Blind Oracles. Intellectuals and War from Kennan to Kissinger
Princeton University Press, 2006
241 pages
ISBN 0691123497

Paul Kennedy
The Parliament of Man: The United Nations and the Quest for World Government
Allen Lane, 2006
361 pages

ISBN 0713993758

Not even his worst enemy could accuse the thirty-seventh President of the United States of being a dry-as-dust policy wonk. Nixon found ample time during his chief magistracy to indulge a hitherto neglected talent for mordant sociological analysis. Those fateful presidential tapes recorded a gem from his first term. Speaking to his assistant John Ehrlichman in 1971, Nixon observed:

You know one of the reasons fashions have made women look so terrible is because the goddamned designers hate women. Designers taking it out on the women. Now they’re trying to get some more sexy things coming on again.

In response to Ehrlichman’s pithy interjection, ‘hot pants,’ Nixon could only gasp ‘Jesus Christ.’ (Though few might have thought it possible, this exchange even tops Nixon’s late night monologues about firebombing the Brookings Institution.)

As Bruce Kucklick and Paul Kennedy’s treatments of the ‘American Century’ show, it didn’t always use to be this way at the White House. Kuklick offers an unsentimental analysis of the ephemeral influence of America’s national security intellectuals over foreign policy since the dropping of the atomic bomb, whereas Kennedy is altogether more optimistic, even insistent, about the role of intellectuals in reforming the United Nations in the century ahead.

For all their different emphases, both books share a common admiration for the astonishingly assured presidency of Harry S Truman, the myopic, bankrupt store keeper from the middle of nowhere who carried Tennyson’s Locksley Hall in his wallet and often quoted its line about ‘the parliament of man, the Federation of the World.’ The impressive commitment of this Great War veteran to American-led global security structures after 1945 eventually made amends for the US Senate’s rejection of the Versailles Treaty in 1919, the epochal moment when, in Woodrow Wilson’s jeremiad at the time, the republic ‘broke the heart of the world.’

Kucklick and Kennedy’s subtle monographs come at a time in international relations when contradictions and ironies abound. The assault on the Twin Towers and Washington DC in 2001 obliterated not just downtown Manhattan and a wing of the Pentagon, but a whole host of diplomatic pieties with them.

We live at a time when George Galloway MP, an open admirer of Syrian Baathism and partisan of Sunni jihad in Arab Iraq, still somehow manages to dine out on self-proclaimed revolutionary, leftist credentials. (He has recently returned from a ghastly lecture tour of the US that was organised by the author of The Vagina Monologues.) Galloway makes sense, however, considering that in 2003, the internationalist progressives at the New Left Review editorialised about the need for solidarity with the Iraqi ‘resistance.’ This was the same outfit that murdered the UN’s most impressive diplomat and the architect of East Timorese independence, Sergio Viera de Mello, by crashing an ambulance full of military grade explosives into his Baghdad compound in 2003, and which still calls for the obliteration of Iraqi Kurdistan, the only part of the country with an independent judiciary, an impressive commitment to gender equality and an army subordinated to a freely elected parliament.

Things are only slightly better for the right these days. Partisans of American constitutionalism have to come to terms with the reality that the intervention in Iraq has resulted in formal constitutional protection for aspects of Sharia law, especially in the Shia dominated southern provinces. Perhaps more than anybody else, Paul Wolfowitz, the former number two at the Pentagon, personifies the ironies of the current time. Here, after all, we have a figure routinely derided as ‘neo-conservative’; yet it is hard to think of a tag more spectacularly inappropriate for a recovering Trotskyist hell-bent on reversing almost fifty years of American diplomatic practice—namely, the idea that failed or failing states often make the best strategic allies.

In a riveting series of interviews with The Atlantic Monthly before leaving the Bush administration in July 2005, Wolfowitz expressed stupefaction at the ferocity of the violence unleashed by the dispossessed Sunni minority in Iraq. This was a reasonable position for most people to take, though it was extraordinary to hear this argument come from the man who spent almost two decades trying to convince the world that Iraqi Baathism constituted an unusually deranged variant of fascism. He might have seen it coming.

Lawyers have also had a rough ride. Professor John Yoo’s crackbrained theories of a ‘unitary executive’ advanced claims for presidential power not seen since the monstrosity that was John Adams’ Aliens and Sedition Act of the 1790s. Though they consigned Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s very own Cyclops with a motorbike, to a new life in the caves of Pakistan and thoroughly routed Saddam’s Republican Guard, the most aggressive administration in American history proved powerless before a smiling, 86-year-old lawyer from Chicago. While perhaps not as historic a decision as has been suggested, Justice John Paul Stevens’ majority opinion for the US Supreme Court in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld last June, invalidating plans to try ‘enemy combatants’ via military commissions, obliterated Yoo’s central arguments about unfettered presidential power. As one American legal blogger put it recently, for all its subtleties, Hamdan ‘handed the Administration its ass on a silver platter.’

Happily, both works considered here make worthy attempts to thread a path through the storm of modern war diplomacy. Kennedy’s book, a manifesto for the reform of the twenty-first century United Nations, stands as a monument to optimism and grace in diplomatic scholarship. It also serves as a startling illustration of the fact that making erroneous predictions in the past does one no real harm at all—at least in academic circles. His most famous book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, proved spectacularly incorrect in its portrayal of an ailing US whose hegemony would not last the century.

In this, Kennedy is not unlike George F. Kennan, author of the American containment strategy while serving as a diplomat in the USSR and star of Kuklick’s account. The young diplomat who gave the world the X Telegram in 1947 grew into a pop-eyed, splenetic old man and spent his golden years vituperating against racial equality. He predicted that the America federation would ultimately split into twelve separate republics which would be run like a series of supermarkets by a committee of appointed ‘experts.’ Kennan’s rants against television and women have not affected his reputation as America’s pre-eminent diplomat. Once you get the big questions right, all will be forgiven it seems.

Though Kennedy canvasses his reform proposals as sensible, middle of the road ideas, taken cumulatively they could have a revolutionary impact on the lumbering behemoth beside the Hudson. Taking his cue from several Canadian studies into the expeditious deployment of troops, Kennedy calls for the creation of an independent UN standing army drawn from the forces of the member states that would be deployable by the Secretary General after Security Council authorisation, without having to be cobbled together at the height of a crisis.

In a world where 800,000 Rwandans were murdered at industrial speed as General Roméo Dalaire begged for even token reinforcements, Kennedy’s book offers tantalising suggestions as to how we might avoid such shameful failures in the future. His book invites readers to imagine how a Secretary General cast in the mould of the no-nonsense Dag Hammarskjöld might have dealt with Slobodan Milosevic, the Sudanese janjaweed nihilists or the hand-lopping diamond bandits working for Liberia’s demented Charles Taylor, if he could have wielded his very own gendarmerie. Poignantly, Kennedy notes that the UN’s most impressive military mission was the very one that claimed Hammarskjöld’s own life during the attempted Katangan secession from the Congo in the early 1960s. Here the UN intervened with vigour, strategic focus and massive military force to crush the secession. As Kennedy tells it, the very finality of its success actually alarmed some member states. Some countries, it seems, will never be happy.

Yet for all Kennedy’s ingenuous proposals for expanding the Security Council and its veto-possessing members by degrees, he remains ultimately stumped by the almost metaphysical tragedy inherent in the UN concept. Multilateral institutions, like the nascent corpus of international law, ultimately remain dependent on individual sovereign states to given them life. For all his justifiable pride in the UN’s many achievements since President Truman warned its inaugural members that ‘if we don’t want to die together in war, we must learn to live together in peace,’ Kennedy fails to convince that the future will do anything to erode the basic dominance of sovereign states in world affairs. He is justly contemptuous of pint-sized nations like New Zealand and Finland who are only too ready to fight to the last drop of American soldiers’ blood. The case of modern Ireland illustrates Kennedy’s problem nicely.

A pushy, sanctimonious member of the League of Nations in the 1930s, Ireland became a vocal advocate at that point of what its constitution called ‘the ideal of peace and friendly co-operation founded on international justice and morality.’ It gave constitutional protection to the ‘generally recognised principles of international law as its rule of conduct in its relations with other States.’ This commitment did not extend to its nearest neighbour, however, as Ireland maintained a sixty-one year territorial claim on Northern Ireland regardless of the wishes of its inhabitants. While probably illegal at the time of its adoption in 1937 insofar as international law was concerned, this claim was wildly out of kilter with international theories of self-determination after the UN’s root and branch revision of this jurisprudence after 1961. For all its fine constitutional prose, Ireland refused to amend this constitutional claim until 1998. It seems that not even the UN’s most adoring pupil would suffer dictation from New York when it came to its pet constitutional grievances.

Kennedy’s rather bland history of international co-operation since W. E. Gladstone’s approach to the Franco-Prussian war convinces him that the future is indeed bright. But his detailed account of the UN’s performance since 1945 unwittingly shows there is no inherent virtue in international co-operation. After all, it was unilateral military interventions that disrupted the worst humanitarian catastrophes since 1945 in the case of India’s invasion of Bangladesh in 1972, the Vietnamese ousting of Pol Pot in 1979 (though the UN continued to recognise the Khmer Rouge) or Tanzania’s invasion of that vortex of cruelty that was Idi Amin’s Uganda that same year.

If Kennedy’s book illuminates through idealism, Kuklick instructs via cautionary history. Charting the vertiginous rise and fall of RAND Corporation intellectuals and others within the American foreign policy world, he shows how few of these oddballs were ever as important as they thought themselves to be. Kuklick is scathing in his rejection of the common view that President Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 constituted the ne plus ultra of Cold War helmsmanship. Unfortunately for the members of the ExComm committee that navigated those dire rapids, Kennedy brought the crisis to a pre-emptory conclusion by deciding in secret to offer Khruschev a trade. If the Chairman reversed his Cuban adventure, Kennedy would secretly agree to withdraw US missiles in Turkey. The crisis ended in this unimpressive manner rather than as a result of superior American ‘signalling’ or because of its ability to master RAND’s then favourite tactic of ‘controlled escalation.’

By 1992, the world would learn just how tenuous Kennedy’s control of events actually was. As Cuba’s ‘Maximum Leader’ Fidel Castro revealed, unbeknownst to the ExComm, just as the Americans were poised to strike the island, there were already 162 primed nuclear warheads, including 90 tactical nuclear warheads, on the island. Castro had already given Khruschev the authority to fire these missiles the moment the Americans attacked and blithely admitted thirty years later that yes, indeed, he delegated the power to utterly destroy modern Cuba to a third party thousands of miles away. One can only nod in unison with his admirers when they invite reflections on his ‘unique’ career.

Kuklick offers a sympathetic, yet ultimately annihilating portrait of Kennedy’s most important advisor during the crisis, the Secretary of Defence and one time president of the Ford Motor Company, Robert Strange McNamara. Kuklick relies heavily here on Paul Hendrickson’s haunting analysis of McNamara’s life in The Living and the Dead: Robert McNamara and Five Lives of a Lost War. Those interested in exploring McNamara’s four-decade search for forgiveness after the catastrophic intervention in Vietnam are best advised to stick with Hendrickson as Kuklick treads a familiar path.

Words fail as Hendrickson charts how McNamara’s strict brand of control accounting and rational actor analysis disappeared into the long grass of the Ia Drang Valley. Or when McNamara is personally devastated after a gentle Quaker from Baltimore immolated himself some fifty feet from his Pentagon office in 1965 while carrying his infant daughter. The reader is left to ponder how the Fates will deal with someone like McNamara, a passionate opponent of racial injustice in 1960s America, a Secretary who came to be hated by the army’s top brass because he could not conceal his contempt for their witless machismo, one whose last years in power were spent crying hysterically behind the closed curtains of his office while the casualty lists mounted obscenely on his desk. For all the complexity of McNamara’s moral life, Kuklick shows that when LBJ bellowed throughout 1967 for him to ‘show me how to hit them in the nuts, Bob! Show me!’ McNamara nearly always obliged.

Hendrickson’s summation is more pungent than Kubrick’s stilted prose and bears recapitulation. ‘I think of Robert McNamara,’ he says, ‘as a kind of post-war technocratic hubristic fable. He was an extraordinarily impressive person, almost a new Adam, who abused his trust, and knows he did, and has spent the rest of his life paying for it.’

Kuklick’s other heavyweight intellectual is Henry Kissinger, the man whose ambitions spirited him from Harvard to the White House by 1969, but who would not achieve iconic status until he dropped his glasses down Monty Burns’s toilet on The Simpsons in 1996. Though he tracks Kissinger’s voluminous writings in academia and at State, Kuklick shrewdly argues that the most important piece of work ever written by him was not any of those National Security Action Memos that he pioneered. Rather Kissinger’s heart and soul is to found in his massive senior honours BA thesis completed at Harvard in the 1950s, imposingly titled ‘The Meaning of History.’

This extraordinary meditation on the moral philosophies of Kant, Spengler and Toynbee shows that Kissinger is not so much a product of the nuclear debates in Ike’s America, but a despairing child of Buchenwald and Birchenau, one desperate to locate ethical meaning in a catastrophic universe. Musing about the ‘agonies of the soul’ inherent in political analysis, the young Kissinger concluded that history had to be assigned a moral meaning by each individual, since without that effort, history was simply the record of decline and death that yielded no values on its face. The existential malaise that inspired this remarkable work can be gleaned from the last lines of its conclusion. Kissinger wrote:

Life is suffering. Birth involves death. No civilization has yet been permanent, no longing completely fulfilled. This is necessity, the fatedness of history, the dilemma of mortality. […] To be sure these may be tired times. But we cannot require immortality as the price for giving meaning to life. The experience of freedom enables us to rise beyond the suffering of the past and the frustrations of history. In this spirituality resides humanity’s essence, the unique which each man imparts to the necessity of his life, the self transcendence which gives peace.

Kissinger’s thesis has been elegantly treated in book form by Peter W. Dickson in his 1978 work, Kissinger and the Meaning of History, which Kuklick criticises as having ‘major short-comings’ (about which he unfortunately declines to explicate). Whatever their differences, both scholars recognise that this work, with its conclusion that moral insights are finite and that existence ultimately is about imperfect choices in a fragile world, is the basis for Kissinger’s policy of détente and arms control. Of the two, Dickson’s is more enlightening and better executed. However both books should be read as antidotes to the cretinous contemporary view that sees American politics as fundamentally ahistorical, if not downright anti-historical.

Kuklick remains largely unimpressed by Kissinger’s tenure as Secretary of State. The creativity of his SALT policy and the opening to China are all the more astonishing in retrospect, however, when one considers the environment in which he had to operate. In Nixon, he faced a potty-mouthed Quaker given to hilariously intemperate outbursts about Jews ( ‘an irreligious, atheistic, amoral bunch of bastards’), homosexuals (‘Sure Aristotle was a homo. So was Socrates’ ) and the need to nuke North Vietnam (‘I just want you to think big Henry, for Christsakes.’) In Vietnam, Kissinger did manage to extricate the US from its disastrous commitment there and cushioned the impact of its withdrawal by keeping the Chinese and the Soviets pacified, at least for a spell. Not bad for a refugee from Nazi Germany.

Both Kuklick and Kennedy make it clear that foreign policy can only be as good as the mortals who conceive and execute it. The overall effect of both monographs is ultimately thus somewhat deflationary. An unreformed UN security council threatens global prosperity today as surely as those RAND pointy-heads did in the 1960s. To mangle one of LBJ’s least gracious assessments of the Vice Presidency of the United States, we are left at the end to ponder the reality that toothless global institutions and hubristic foreign ministries between them aren’t ‘worth a pitcher of warm piss.’ We are in for a long twenty-first century.

John-Paul McCarthy, DPhil student in History at Exeter College, Oxford, is currently writing about Gladstone’s intellectual life. He is also working on a biography of Irish cabinet secretary Maurice Moynihan.