Politics & Policy

Battle of the Clichés

(Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Today’s rhetoric is unworthy of the challenges we face.

We are now in an era when much of political discourse consists in the shrieking of epithets, as well as the imputation of discreditable motives and (often) of a slavish adherence to extreme or notoriously unsuccessful ideologies. In the rare moments when the war of defamatory sound bites rises to the invocation of respectable or at least recognizable sources, foreign and national-security matters are generally reduced to bandying about the Munich Conference of 1938 and countering with the conjuration of “boots on the ground” as if that were an insane or morally reprehensible concept. And, on the economic side, if debate is pushed beyond the initial platitudes and alarms, what occurs is usually what is claimed to be a contest between the followers of John Maynard Keynes (1882–1946) and Friedrich Hayek (1899–1992).

The political debate has been rather static for all of this new century, since the evaporation of the chimerical Bill ClintonTony Blair “Third Way” (a spurious attempt to rally the Reagan-Thatcher Right to soft-left policy options), and Munich, the proverbial “boots,” Keynes, and Hayek have all been reduced to caricatures. The problem with the Munich settlement was not that Sudetenland joined Germany. The British and French could not go to war to prevent the Sudetenlanders from achieving that ambition. Hitler had found and exploited the weakness of the artificial states patched together at Versailles out of the remnants of the Habsburg and other empires. The newly created countries did not possess the legitimacy to ignore or suppress such local aspirations if they were being incited by a more powerful neighboring state.

The grievous faults of Munich were that Czechoslovakia should not have been dismembered so abruptly, without a referendum, and with no time for the Czechoslovak government to evacuate non-Germans or federal military installations from Sudetenland; the resulting four-power guarantee of Czechoslovakia was treated so cavalierly that Poland and Hungary both tore a further chunk out of that country without a peep of objection from any of the signatories (Germany, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom). Most seriously, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain represented the agreement as “Peace in our time” and “Peace with honour,” quoting the great British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, who had faced down Bismarck at the Congress of Berlin in 1878, and preserved the peace in Europe.

On his return to London, Chamberlain waved a piece of paper that Hitler had signed professing a shared Anglo-German desire “never to go to war with one another again.” More realistic was the fine cynicism of the French premier, Édouard Daladier, who, on seeing the crowds that awaited him at Le Bourget airport, expressed concern about being stoned to death, and when he saw that the people were cheering, said to his entourage: “The bloody fools.” The conduct of Chamberlain and Daladier completely disgusted the U.S. and Soviet governments, and Franklin D. Roosevelt awaited the elevation of leadership that would not, as he put it to the British ambassador to the U.S., Sir Ronald Lindsay, cry, “We who are about to die, salute you,” while beseeching forceful American support. In the Kremlin, Stalin concluded that London and Paris were hopeless and began maneuvering toward the Nazi–Soviet pact that unleashed World War II. It should have been obvious to Chamberlain that only the collaboration of the U.S. and the USSR could subdue Hitler.

“Boots on the ground” has become a frightening cliché. There is nothing wrong with the insertion of forces into a foreign conflict if the national security and international law justify it, the defined goal is attainable at reasonable cost in lives and resources, and there is a plausible and honorable exit strategy. The distinction must be drawn between the toleration of what is inconvenient in the foreign-policy antics of other countries because they cannot be deterred or countered at acceptable cost, and appeasing and facilitating and even pridefully collaborating in odious conduct. The Sudeten crisis did not justify Britain and France in going to war, but association by those powers with that policy was dishonorable. As Winston Churchill said at the time: “You chose shame and you will get war.” Those were not the only alternatives, and, in general, war should be chosen only when shame is the alternative. And military force can be used without, as “boots on the ground” has come to mean in the popular imagination, the indefinite commitment of ground forces in an inhospitable place for an indefinite time, sustaining casualties and material costs that it is impossible to justify.

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There has been no substantial American military intervention since World War II that has been entirely successful; all such prior actions except the War of 1812 had been altogether successful. The Korean War rescued South Korea, and was rather successful, but left the world with the albatross of the Kimist hermit despotism in North Korea that bedevils us still. General Douglas MacArthur’s public insubordination was unacceptable, but he was correct that “in war there is no substitute for victory.” Vietnam, if it was worth fighting for at all, should have been tackled in the Fifties as soon as France conceded the end of its colonial ambitions there — when the U.S. would have had serious allies and before Ho Chi Minh had turned all of North Vietnam into a warrior state. Even when Lyndon Johnson did plunge in, it could have been won by training the anti-Communists, cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and pounding Northern military targets. This was the formula that did largely bring peace after the relaunched North Vietnamese invasion of April 1972, when the South defeated the North with only air support from the U.S. (There were still U.S. ground forces in Vietnam, but their role was limited to protecting air bases.)

The Gulf War was very successful in forcing Saddam Hussein to disgorge Kuwait, but in allowing Saddam to remain in power, it was an incomplete victory when total victory was easily in reach. And the Iraq War got rid of Saddam, but instead of putting a less objectionable figure of authority in place with stern warnings to avoid severe misconduct, the decision to rebuild the entire Iraqi state, like the corresponding decision in Afghanistan after the Mullah Omar and his non-paying al-Qaeda tenants had been sent packing, mired the United States and its long-suffering allies in a swamp and left little to show for the great sacrifices that have been made with the best of intentions.

“No more Munichs” must mean no more complicity in foreign aggression — it must not mean that the West will prevent any injustice that occurs everywhere in the world even if it is not significantly affected by it. “No boots on the ground”​ must become a comfort level that the country’s leaders can judge successfully how much force to apply in different crises by calibrating accurately the cost-benefit ratio and ensuring an acceptable exit strategy before getting involved. In general, Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush Sr. made these vital calculations correctly, and Presidents Johnson, Carter, Bush Jr., and Obama have not. The shocking enfeeblement of once useful allies, especially in Western Europe, illustrates the propensity of under-contributing allies to become mere passengers and the need for the United States, as alliance leader, to keep and exercise control, even if it prudently reduces foreign commitments.

In economics, Keynes and Hayek have become simplistic labels, Keynes for spending out of recessions with deficit financing and Hayek for economic shrinkage of government. In fact, 75 percent of what both of them wrote about economics was bunk. Keynes believed that there was a natural balance in the economy of full employment and minimal inflation. There isn’t. He was right that public-sector spending is a better antidote to economic downturns than self-amplifying austerity, but that is almost the end of it. His theory of the role of reparations in the radicalization of inter-war Germany was almost completely false; his advice to President Roosevelt in the Thirties was, as FDR considered it, patronizing and inaccurate, and the Federal Reserve chairman, Marriner Eccles, a Utah Mormon, gave better advice without Keynes’ condescensions. Hayek was a great political philosopher, emphasizing the role and vitality of individual liberty, but his economic views led to a minimal-growth policy of virtual public-sector abstention from economic activity, a policy that comports many hazards.

The scale of the problem was illustrated by the megalomaniacal Chicago appellate judge Richard Posner, who wrote a book about the 2008 economic crisis in which he boldly concluded that the cause of the Great Recession should be determined by a properly funded commission of inquiry and that he was a “Keynesian,” which apparently meant that an open fiscal spigot was called for. It was predictable from such a perverse jurist, who frequently doesn’t read written pleadings in matters before him, believes the adoption of children should be by public auction, never allows contending counsel in his court to finish sentences, and engages in public slanging matches with Supreme Court justices. This last, unsuccessfully: He had no reply when Antonin Scalia called him a “liar.” (I know about Posner from having had to appeal a ruling of his to the Supreme Court of the United States, which excoriated him unanimously as it vacated his decisions. And that was just on the law; on the facts, Posner was even more mistaken.) But when sound bites and catchwords are the norm even for someone of Posner’s intellectual pretensions, the task of elevating national-security and economic-policy teams that have the judgment that the urgency of today’s problems requires is made much more complicated.

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at cbletters@gmail.com.

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