One of the exciting things for me about writing this blog is how the "official" posts are coming together naturally to form a single, extended argument. Each post adds its piece to an overall picture that has more coherence than I expected, to be honest.
One thing that I'm especially pleased to see is how the discussion naturally comes back to the first principle of war: military action must create a desired political outcome, or else the whole enterprise of war is meaningless.
I'm not altogether happy to keep returning this point, though. On my cynical days, I'll say to myself, "Having to make such an obvious point is a sure sign how far civic education has fallen in this country." On my optimistic days, I'll tell myself, "To be fair, Clausewitz had to labor to make the same obvious point in his age. War involves a lot of confusing details, so it's always hard to get to the heart of the matter."
These recent postings on power and leverage meshes nicely with the earlier points about war aims. Another reason that power isn't a good guide to understanding international relations, or making decisions about what to do as a nation, is that power often steers people in the wrong direction. Power exists to be used, and the more urgent the situation, and the greater the power at your disposal, the more temptation to use it. Power also plays to an equally bad temptation to judge leaders (a requirement of a democratic society) based on their intentions, not their actions.
Many US citizens felt baffled and outraged that Truman didn't use the atomic bomb in Korea. It seemed inconceivable that, while Americans were being killed in bloody fighting with the North Koreans and Chinese, we didn't use the ultimate weapon--especially since our enemies couldn't retaliate in kind. Power was available to be used; if Truman didn't use it, there was something wrong with Truman.
Johnson had the same problem in reverse. "Doing something" in Indochina seemed to be sufficient for many people. Escalating the air war in Operation ROLLING THUNDER, or introducing US combat troops in ever-increasing numbers, made sense to people who wanted to keep the Vietnamese domino from falling. Johnson was doing something against the North Vietnamese; therefore, he was doing the right thing.
Clearly, this argument is nonsense. The United States tried many military measures in the Vietnam War. Some worked; some didn't. Success could only be judged by outcomes, whether you looked at gross and perhaps misleading statistics like relative body counts, or more important but less measurable results like the effort to win "hearts and minds." Military power sometimes does help win a population's allegiance or acquiescence: as Johnson himself famously said, "If you have someone by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow." However, we have to return yet again to that obvious point that, sadly, can't be stated enough: you have some idea how force will create the result you want. Perhaps you think that attrition warfare will break the enemy's spirit. Perhaps you believe that a careful program of securing the villages from NLF infiltrators will impress and reassure peasants who don't really support the Viet Cong, but have good reason to fear them. Both are testable propositions; both rest on some theory of what kinds of military operations will create the right political outcomes, and the steps needed to get from A (now) to B (the future after the war).
I'm using the Vietnam example, obviously, because it's a classic case of how a country believing too much in its own power can come to terrible grief.
I dedicate some time each week on the discussion boards for other blogs. It's a great way to meet people, including those who support Bush's policies. I use the opportunity to speak directly with the pro-Bush crowd to see if we can find some common ground, a place where the screaming will stop and a true meeting of minds will begin. It's my democratic duty to both practice open-mindedness and encourage it in others.
Happily, it's usually a lot easier to have a discussion with someone on the other side of the aisle than you might expect. It all depends on how you engage with them. The first question I always ask is some version of, "What would have to happen for you to decide that Bush wasn't worthy of re-election?" Phrasing the question that way--pointing to the political outcomes they want, and how we get there--not only gets the real conversation started, but also keeps it on track. (And it's damn hard for all of us, myself included, to stay on track. The issues raised by 9/11, Afghanistan, and Iraq are complex, and they stir some very primal feelings.)
I've noticed a pattern when this approach has failed. A significant segment of the pro-Bush correspondents on the message boards fall back on the statement, "Bush is taking a tough stance on terrorism. He's serious about doing something, so that's why I support him."
Obviously, this statement has its echoes in what people once said about Johnson in Vietnam: He's doing something, making a stand, etc. It's a dangerous philosophy, since it lets the noisy exercise of power drown out any discussion of its consequences. The statement, He's doing something, has a talismanic quality for many people, to the point where further discussion is actually impossible.
I've heard the very same people say something like, We like Bush because of his values. Now, I like people, too, because of their values. My wife and daughter are both noble people, as are many of my friends, co-workers, and acquaintances. What often makes our lives decent fulfilling is the faith in one another that we're struggling to do the right things, even when we misstep.
However, I don't know the human heart all that well to begin with, and far less in people I don't know personally. I don't know Bush, just as I didn't know Clinton. I can't say what values dear to these two men really are--despite how much I've read about both Bush and Clinton, or as often as I've seen them speak. I can say, with certainty, that I don't care what their values are. I do care about what they do as presidents.
That's politics, as Weber said. You judge policies by their outcomes, politicians by the results of their actions. That's an excruciating truth for a politician to face, since you might sincerely intend to build a bright future for everyone, but end up being the architect of a complete disaster. (Insert your favorite calamity here.)
I always cringe whenever I hear someone likes a politician primarily or completely because of that person's values. This sentiment isn't just irrelevant to politics; it easily mutates into anti-politics. If you think that sentiment trumps ability, intentions eclipse actions, then the exercise of power is just a kind of statement of values. The more you exercise power, the more sincere you are. Anti-politics, thereforce, has its own terrible consequences--but its practitioners just don't want to look at them. Anti-politics is a flight from responsibility, disguised as virtue.
Postscript: Niccolo Machiavelli's list of helpful hints to Lorenzo de Medici fits into this discussion. The Prince has a dark reputation, but it's actually just a book on how to govern well, whatever your motives. (Machiavelli made his own values clear in his other famous work, The Discourses, an argument for republicanism with an early version of a separation of powers.) The Prince is filled with good advice about politics, applicable to any age. For example, to be an effective ruler, he argues, it doesn't matter how virtuous you are; it's how virtuous you appear to be. Centuries of readers have mistaken that statement for cynicism, but Machiavelli wasn't a nihilist. He wanted a good society, based on just principles. He also knew that good intentions weren't enough to get there.