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From Colony to Superpower: Don’t Mess with Texas

[ 0 ] December 7, 2008 |

Erik introduces chapter five of From Colony to Superpower (for older posts click on the tag), which covers the period between 1837 and 1861. The customary random observations:

Herring discusses the impact that Texas independence had on US-Mexico relations, and especially the degree to which the decision to admit Texas to the Union precipitated the Mexican-American War. I’m not an expert on Texas history, but the widespread expectation that Texas would enter the United States, rather than remain an independent Republic, strikes me as curious. Herring noted in an earlier chapter that Thomas Jefferson expected American “civilization” to spread across the North American continent, but that this spread need not take place in the form of a single political unit. An independent Texas would have fulfilled this expectation. Of course, changes in communication and transportation technology made a continental empire more possible in 1840 than it had been in 1800, but this doesn’t quite explain why Texas pursued union rather than independence. From the beginning of its existence, Texas was dependent upon the United States, but of course such a state isn’t necessarily indicative of a particular policy; Texas might have made effort to reduce that dependence, rather than to formalize it. Ethnic and ideological affinity for the United States seems to have been the primary motivation within Texas for union, but it’s nevertheless fun to muse about the long term implications of an independent Texas.

This last week in National Security Policy the topic was Strategic Communication. We dealt at some length with the Munich Analogy as a strategic communication/propaganda strategy, concentrating in particular on how effectively it creates roles for participants (enemy=Hitler, dove=Chamberlain, hawk=Churchill). When dealing with the Analogy in the past, I’ve asked students to think about it in terms of the United States during the Polk period. Polk began by making a series of threats against British holdings in the Northwest, asserting American sovereignty over territory on which the US had virtually no legal claim. In response, the British could have fought; there were risks, but the Royal Navy could have made the Americans pay a substantial price for their aggression. Instead, the British chose a more conciliatory route, making clear that they did have clear lines beyond which they would not go (no US sovereignty north of the 49th parallel), but appeasing the US claim to the jointly administered Oregon Territory.

On the one hand, you could argue that the British conducted successful appeasement, and consequently that the strategy of appeasement works in many situations. The United States did not, after all, invade Canada or attack any other British possessions. This is fairly common sense; appeasement fails in the face of incorrigible aggressors, but very few aggressors actually are incorrigible. On the other hand, a proponent of the applicability of the Munich Analogy could draw a direct connection between the Oregon settlement and the theft of half of Mexico; if the British had given the US a bloody nose in 1845, and taken steps to guarantee Mexico’s territorial integrity, then the neighborhood bully would have backed down. I’m actually inclined to think that British resistance on the Oregon question would resulted in the theft of more of Mexico by a frustrated US, but there’s at least a nugget of an argument to suggest a parallel with 1938. US territorial expansion slowed down considerably after 1848, but that has as much to do with US domestic politics as anything else.

On that subject, in comments several people has questioned my suggestion that the 1790s, the 1950s, and the 2000s are the only times in which foreign policy came to dominate domestic political debate. In particular, some people have argued that the 1840s, which included the debate over the Mexican War and the expansion of slavery more generally, represents a fourth period of foreign policy dominance. My response would be that this is an issue of cause and effect; whereas the debates in the 1790s, 1950s, and 2000s came about because of changes in the international environment, the foreign policy debate in the 1840s was the product of disagreement over domestic affairs. Support for and opposition to the Mexican War can’t be entirely reduced to the question of slavery, but it’s pretty close. What we have, then, is not so much a debate about foreign policy, but rather a debate about slavery that had implications for foreign policy.

Designed to Fail

[ 0 ] December 7, 2008 |

I would expect career civil servants to do a better job than political appointees in any case, but I do wonder whether there’s a difference between the parties. Republicans, after all, expect government to fail and very often ensure that it will. Democrats think differently, and that may well show up in their performance.

Shocking Discoveries

[ 1 ] December 7, 2008 |

Following up an insane week of travel and other commitments I will be attending tonight’s Flames/Rangers tilt with the World’s Most Dangerous Professor and have another silly Times op-ed to get to, so I’ll have to let someone else give the remarkably high words-to-content ratio of Caitlin Flangan’s latest joint a more extensive treatment. I do wish to make a couple of points:

  • I often hear that, whatever one thinks of Flangan’s silly ideas, they are expressed in first-rate prose. I note that, on Decemember 7, she wrote the following sentence: “Whether that was the game-changer or not is a question for near-constant debate.” (In fairness, she at least did not follow-up that up by saying that Prop 8 opponents couldn’t “close the deal.”)
  • I am unable to discern any meaning to her distinction between ordinary coalitions and “rainbow” coalitions, except that apparently the internal tensions that are inevitable in large parties are more troubling if they contain people of color.
  • I am afraid that she considers the fact that “one oppressed group does not necessarily support the goals of another oppressed group” some sort of novel insight. She may want to talk to a feminist who was involved in anti-war politics in the 60s…

"The Underpants Gnome Theory of Political Activism"

[ 0 ] December 7, 2008 |

Hilzoy doesn’t leave much unsaid here.

I’m not sure why the Times chose to give editorial space to Ayers, either; the failure of the “palling-around-with-terrorists” narrative proved sufficiently enough that his work in the late 1960s and early 1970s was irrelevant to the outcome of the campaign. Idiots like Bob Owens and Sarah Palin tried to give Weatherman/Weather Underground an undeserved centrality in the debate about whether Obama was qualified to succeed the worst two-term president in the history of the republic. As for why his tangential ties to Obama shouldn’t matter, though, Ayers’ explanations are nothing less than boring.

Anyone who’s actually interested in the Weather Underground should watch the documentary by Sam Green and Bill Siegel is available on Google Video and is worth 90 minutes of your time.

Downfall: Apologia?

[ 0 ] December 6, 2008 |

Does anyone out there interpret Downfall in the same way as Ron Rosenbaum?

This has always been my problem with films like the German-made Downfall, which while initially being taken seriously by many, many film critics has found its true level as a YouTube camp joke. Downfall purports to offer the “inside story” of the last days of Hitler in his Berlin bunker and implicitly makes the case that the Holocaust wasn’t the fault of the German people—no, they were victims, too!—but rather of one man, Hitler, and the small coterie of madmen and evil women surrounding him. Nothing to do with Germany’s eager reception of exterminationist anti-Semitism.

Hmm. I’ve seen the movie probably half a dozen times, and I guess I just don’t get it. Some ordinary Germans in the film are depicted as tired of the Nazis. Other ordinary Germans are depicted as enthusiastic about Hitler till the end (including, it bears noting, the main character). It had never occurred to me to think about Downfall as an effort to apologize for ordinary German anti-semitism. It’s perhaps a bit too kind to Albert Speer, but that’s about it. Did I miss something?

Oh, Glorious Day!

[ 0 ] December 6, 2008 |

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you 2008 Washington Huskies football:

Opponent Margin of Defeat
Oregon 34
BYU 1
Oklahoma 41
Stanford 7
Arizona 34
OSU 21
Notre Dame 26
USC 56
ASU 20
UCLA 20
WSU 3
California 41

From Colony to Superpower: 4.2

[ 0 ] December 6, 2008 |

Reading Herring has made Erik irritable:

I think I am just more outraged by this period in American foreign policy than Rob. Rob was able to focus on a lot of important issues that I didn’t much explore–normalization of relations with Britain, probably a slightly more traditional discussion of the Monroe Doctrine than I gave, etc. Perhaps this is how you survive as a defense scholar–you have to suppress the outrage. Everything Rob says is important, but I can’t get past the revolting ideological foundations of American foreign relations (and perhaps of the nation itself), the racism and hypocrisy of our interactions with other nations, the violence we used, the self-serving justifications, the belief that we were and are expressing God’s will.

Every bad thing about U.S. foreign policy today has its roots in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. I’d like to think that Bush was an aberration. But the more I read, the less I think that. Bush was expressing fundamental tenets of American ideology, at their extremes perhaps, but there’s a reason so many supported him, even in 2004. They would have still supported him, at least until the economic crisis, if he was winning in Iraq. It would have been onto Iran with significant public support. Without an unlikely rejection of national ideology and mythology, I have little reason to hope that some other president in the next 20 years will ride that J.Q. Adams-Reagan-Bush horse into power and again try to fulfill our national destiny by running roughshod over the world.

Meh. I would say that it’s academic distance that slows the boil, but I’m not sure that’s quite it. Pretty much every country has its own story of exceptionalism, and its own narrative of a relationship with God, and its own history of how these have interacted to horrible effect. And it wasn’t American exceptionalism that drove Tony Blair to join the crusade into Iraq. That isn’t to excuse the behavior of the US then or now, but simply to place it in context; I suppose maybe that is rather the academic distance talking. And so, I have trouble finding Erik’s outrage in my own reading of Herring.

I also think there’s a problem with asserting that there’s only a single narrative to America’s approach to the world; this would be the “Adams-Reagan-Bush” approach that Erik alludes to. This isn’t to question whether John Quincy Adams would have favored the war in Iraq, because such a question can’t make any sense. Rather, it’s to reinforce that many of the important foreign policy questions that have faced the United States have produced vigorous, often bitter debate. Becoming familiar with these debates (the big differences between Clay and Adams on the proper US attitude towards the Latin American republics, for example) is one of the reasons we read books like From Colony to Superpower. Even when these debates don’t structure the political landscape (as they did in 1798, 1950, or 2002) they still exist within the foreign policy elite, the general public, and the hierarchy of the political parties. It’s kind of interesting, then, to watch as Monroe and Adams give up on certain elements of the idea of American exceptionalism (the hostility to the forms of traditional diplomacy, for example), and then watch Jackson (and even more so, Polk) return to them.

To change the subject a bit, it’s also somewhat interesting to think about how the United States interacted with the Latin American republics and the states of the Far East in the absence of any information about them. Diplomats dispatched to South American capitols did not have the benefit of Wikipedia, after all; in this context, it’s probably less than surprising that Americans managed to irritate and insult their hosts. Given the number of times European diplomats managed to direly insult Americans in Herring’s narrative, I’m guessing that such gaffes were quite more common in the early diplomatic service than they are today, and perhaps also a bit more excusable as a lack of information, rather than as evidence of American bluster and parochialism.

Tomorrow, on to Polk…

Morning Piracy Round-Up

[ 0 ] December 6, 2008 |

Douglas Burgess argues that piracy is, in a legal sense, the same as terrorism. Galrahn correctly argues that this formulation produces more questions than it answers. John Burnett argues that the answer to Somali piracy is to take active steps to return the ICU to power.

Noonan Staggers into a Point…

[ 0 ] December 6, 2008 |

I look forward for weeks to the moment each year when, in National Security Policy, I can hold forth on the stupidity of having both a Department of Homeland Security and and Department of Defense.

Brought to you by Joe Lieberman, of course. We should change DoD back to War, or at least “Imperial Affairs” or something.

West Bank Pogroms

[ 0 ] December 6, 2008 |

Olmert is right; the settlements are poison to Israel.

Noam Arnon, a settler who lives in Hebron, said that with the eviction, Barak was destroying not only his Labor Party, but the State of Israel. Other protesters at the evacuation said the decision not to allow Jews to buy property in Hebron reminded them of Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws. According to prominent settler rabbi Dov Wolpe: “The fathers will avenge the eviction of the sons.”

See also Dan Levy. And if you don’t believe that, then try Marty Peretz.

This isn’t Right…

[ 0 ] December 6, 2008 |

This op-ed lists William Ayers as the author of “Fugitive Days” and “Race Course”, but not of “Dreams of My Father”; that can’t be right…

Beutler BH

[ 0 ] December 6, 2008 |

I didn’t even have to get shot to get on Bloggingheads…