What the coming years look like from here -- a discussion at On Point with with Tom Ashbrook
Eric Foner, professor of history, Columbia University. The Washington Post described him as "one of the most prolific, creative and influential historians of the past 20 years".
David Laitin, professor of political science, Stanford University. He has written extensively on terrorism and civil war.
Callers to the show
Tom Ashbrook: It's a new year, and the country feels as ripe as it's felt in a long time for fresh thinking. So let's do it. Let's wade into the waters of what might be, nationally and internationally -- from politics to the economy to the environment and more... New possibilities and new mindsets for a new year... Eric Foner, you've looked -- famously! -- at Civil War reconstruction, another great hinge moment in American history... Do you have a sense of the country at the dawn of 2007 at a point where it's ready to rethink the way it's been looking at itself in the world or not?
Eric Foner: Well, I hope so! Of course, last year during the election campaign, one of the most striking opinion poll results was on this question "Are we on the right track or on the wrong track?" A significant majority of Americans thought the country was on the wrong track. That's not a very specific critique, but it does suggest that receptivity to new thinking is out there, as it has many times in our affairs. The problem is -- I'm not a political pundit analyzing every moment and everything that happens in Congress -- it still does seem that we're very polarized in the country, that partisanship is extremely rife. New thinking it going to require both parties to move away from the stridency of the last several years and under the Bush administration certainly and be willing to slough off some very cherished ideas. Is that possible? I don't know, even though I think there's a great desire for it. Whether it happens in Washington remains to be seen.
TA: Give us a little historical perspective here. You're here -- we've invited you exactly because you're not a political pundit. You've watched a lot of American history. How do new mindsets, new fundamental perceptions, get into currency in this country and can you do it without stridency?
EF: No. Of course stridency is an important part of politics. A lot of the new thinking in our history has come from outside of the so-called "beltway" through social movements, whether it's the Abolitionist movement or Women's Suffrage movement or the Labor movement. People who have not actually been directly involved in political action taking to the streets or publicizing their views... Usually people in power are the last ones to get the message. Of course there are many such social movements out there in the country today. Sometimes they seem rather fragmented and often at cross purposes. But that's one basic way in our history that new ideas have entered the political mainstream -- through these outside groups pressuring for change. Then, of course, there is the question which Professor Laitin knows much more about than I do which is political leadership. That's where we have failed -- really have a tremendous vacuum at the top right now of just lack of actual leadership, lack of a willingness to confront big problems. One of the key things about leadership -- you mentioned the Civil War. You know Lincoln of course was the greatest example. It's the willingness and ability to change. In 1862, on the eve of Emancipation, Lincoln said "the dogmas of quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. We must disenthrall ourselves..." from our previous ideas. That's how you start changing -- by recognizing that you have to disenthrall yourself. But I haven't seen any evidence of that coming from the top of this administration on any issue! Forget about Iraq, which everybody knows plenty about! Whether it's domestic policy, global warming, civil liberties -- you name it! So in the absence of any genuine leadership at the top of the political system, I think it's from these grass roots movements that new ideas are probably going to be generated.
TA: And the beauty is, right here in this forum we don't have to wait on any leadership, we can push the ideas wherever they go! So I'll come back and ask you, Eric Foner, where you think we are at this moment in terms of the nation's sense of itself relative to earlier eras. David Laitin: same big question to you. Are we as a nation... are at a moment in your view where we're ready to "disenthrall ourselves" as Eric Foner says, quoting Abraham Lincoln, from the kind of mindset we've been in during the last number of years?
David Laitin: Well, Tom, my forecast or my sense is far more modest. I think that the coming year will be one in which merely reality will trump ideology, where the Bush administration will be compelled to adjust policy to facts on the ground rather than sustaining failed and dangerous policies that have been based on faith. Could I give you just a few examples to start things off?
DL: First is the reality that the American-led occupation of Iraq has failed. It has brought neither security nor democracy. This reality let the Iraq study group to recommend a strategy that could only be interpreted as retreat with dignity. The so-called "surge" that's bandied about by administration circles today can postpone facing this reality perhaps for a few months, but there's the reality that the administration cannot for long ignore. The Bush team will be compelled -- and I believe it will be this year -- to negotiate the terms of an honorable retreat.
TA: Is that going to mean a different American attitude? The Iraq Study Group is famous for putting the word "failure" out there. Even the President followed that afterward. How do you see that idea of failure integrating itself into the fundamental American mindset or view of the world?
DL: I think the American mindset is watching in some relief that the administration's grandiose ideas of bringing world change are somewhat relaxed and facing the reality that all of us can observe on TV every day. A second example: Secretary Rice's democracy initiative clearly has backfired. The median voter in many countries is anti-American and this makes "democracy promotion" troublesome for our interests. Think of Hamas's victory in Palestine, Ahmadinejad's victory in Iran, and Morales' victory in Bolivia -- and Chavez as democratically-elected leader in Venezuela! In the coming year, I think, US common interests with Russia and with Ethiopia (thinking of the Somalia case) suggest that the reality of national interests are compelling us to develop productive relations with democrats-turned-dictators and will trump the messianic mission of Rice's democracy promotion everywhere.
TA: More real politik? Is that the future you're seeing?
DL: That is -- coming to terms with real politik rather than messianic desires to transform the world. And one factor that will push this is the reality the Bush administration will have to face: American democracy will compel the administration to subject its policies to Congressional scrutiny, something it hasn't had to do for five years. Cabinet secretaries will no longer have teflon-coated hearings to justify their ideologically driven policies. The realities, rather than the myths of Social Security, of healthcare, of global warming and of the minimum wage will be thrust upon the administration, I think, in daily doses... And finally is the reality -- and we haven't discussed the economy yet -- of our budget and trade deficits and the treasury-bill owneship of American debt, largely by foreign central banks. This reality may strike anytime, I think. This year, next year, or maybe a few years down the line, a run on the dollar set off by China, by South Korea, or by Japan, would have a devastating impact on American economic security and the world economy. Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy and this refusal to tax Americans for our "war on terror" have helped create an economic reality that eventually will have to be faced squarely. So let me sum up and say, this is a year in which reality may well strike the administration which up until now has been largely impervious to it. That's my forecast for this year!
TA: Eric Foner, there's a lot of realities -- and tough ones -- laid out by David Laitin. And yet, as a country, we respond to reality very often through prisms of national mythology. I don't mean that necessarily in a disparaging way. Sort of attitudes toward the world. Do you see Americans at a moment where they're... sort of... a facet of our mythology that we're by and large fixed on or operating from can meet these realities in an effective way?
EF: I think that's a good question because even though I completely share Professor Laitin's view of the Bush administration, many of their ideologies and outlooks do not originate with them. They are deeply rooted in American history. The notion that we have a mission to completely remake the world in our own image -- sometimes called the Wilsonian image though it goes all the way back to Jefferson, really -- people still view reality through the prism of inherited ideas, as you said. That's why it is difficult but essential to rethink some of our basic ingrained ideas which go way back before the year 2000...
TA: We have many strands of American mythology, and I mean that with respect in this case. Here we are in 2007. How do you see what's been the operative mindset, the things we've been drawing on out of our history. Are we at a point where we might put on some different clothes from that old wardrobe?
EF: Let me give you an example of a basic piece of the American mindset that I think might be shelved for a while, and that's the notion of American exceptionalism -- that we somehow are a unique nation in the world with a kind of mission to spread our particular values and beliefs and dogmas to everybody else. Now everybody is exceptional in some ways. Nobody would say that France is equivalent to Germany or that Russia is the same as China. But our exceptionalism is a little different. Most countries don't think that they are a model to the whole rest of the world as American leaders and people have since the time of the American Revolution -- whether it's Lincoln's "last best hope of man" or Jefferson's "empire of liberty." Unfortunately, especially lately, this kind of mindset leads to certain hubris, the notion that we have all the answers. You can go back and read the national security strategy in 2002 which began by saying that there is a single sustainable model of society for the world and guess who has that! We do! Our job is to sort of remake everybody else according to our model. There's a different American tradition which I think we ought to try to rediscover which has gone into abeyance and that's in the Declaration of Independence where the Founders said we have to exhibit a decent respect for the opinions of mankind. That's why they wrote the Declaration -- to explain to mankind why there was this revolution. If we can move away from our exceptionalism and think about how we might learn from other people... One example: take this notion of the crisis of healthcare. Every country in the world has a health system. Some of them work well, some of them don't work very well, but how many times have you heard someone in Congress say, "Well, let's go and look at what other countries are doing. What are they doing in France? What are they doing in Denmark? What are they doing in Japan?
TA:...where they're living longer and spending less!
EF: Exactly! But I'm not even saying let's adopt this plan or that plan. I'm saying let's get out of the mindset that we have all the answers and that we have nothing to learn from the rest of mankind.
TA: Let's pick that one up. David Laitin, as it happens, we're going to be talking tomorrow with Robert Kagan who has a new book out, "Dangerous Nation," looking back an American exceptionalism. He's a conservative and he's kind of applauding it, saying that we've always reached out to certain American values on this continent and well beyond. What about that, David Laitin? Is that something Americans can lay down? Here we are in a globalized era, we're told. It seems like the kind of time where you have to stand up for what you believe in before it gets washed away in a global tide...
DL: I completely agree that having our values and stating our values clearly for democracy and for individual freedom, for human rights, for fair treatment of workers around the world -- these are values which we should promote because they're important to us and I think we can justify them morally. But the problem that we face is that the world isn't as simple as "us good guys and them bad guys" -- an axis of evil and we are all good. The world is much more complex than the Bush administration has led us to believe and it leads to some bizarre and difficult problems because we see the world the world in black and white rather than more nuanced these days. If I may, I'll give just one example of this. In the current war going on in Somalia, the US has decided to use Ethiopia as a proxy to overcome an Al Qaeda-linked regime which had taken control of Somalia. This is not the worst policy in the world to support this and to bring the transitional federal government into power where it had been in exile... But the problem is, once we use President Meles of Ethiopia as our interlocutor...
TA: ... authoritarian leader, even dictator there...
DL: He was a democrat and democratically elected. But with authoritarian -- sort of -- goals. And turning into a dictator and the last election was close to moving towards dictatorship. Well now, if he refuses to put himself up for election in the next election cycle, because we are beholden to him for what he has done on our behalf in Somalia, we are less willing to push for true democracy there.
TA: If I may, it sounds like he may be pushing the US there towards sort of a box of paralysis. You're saying, Don't send troops out to impose American values around the world, so you don't want American troops in Somalia, whereas the neighboring Ethiopia real politik might suggest that you use them. But you're saying don't do that either because that offends our values...
DL: No. What I'm saying is that probably it was a good idea to have Ethiopians troops do it. I'm not opposed to that. I'm just saying that this means we have to compromise somewhat on pushing for democracy. We have to deal with people and countries as they are. If our national interests require for the war on terrorism to deal with President Meles on his own terms we have to understand that we can't promote all good things all the time with some kind of messianic zeal. We have to compromise some goals in order to achieve others. The world is more nuanced than the Bush administration has made us believe with the idea that once we give people democracy everyone will want peace and freedom and wars will end...
EF: My point was that maybe there are values in other parts of the world that we might want to think about. The question of whether we promote our values -- whether you call it democracy or individualism and freedom, which are of course all noble ideas -- the mindset to me is that we have all the values and there's no point in listening to others. For example, as was pointed out before, many places in the world are much more skeptical right now about the economic consequences right now of rampant globalization than the US seems to be. In Latin America, country after country is electing leaders who are criticizing this free trade without any restrictions or the flow of capital without any concern for the effect on labor or communities. In European countries, there is a far greater effort to create economic security to combat economic inequality than in this country. I think it was Secretary Rumsfeld who referred to "old Europe" and there's a general sense among leaders in this country that "that's old hat, that notion of trying to protect ordinary people! Forget it in the modern world! Let's just let capital flow wherever it wants! That's freedom!" So we might actually learn something from other places, rather than simply be concerned with how to spread our values around. Maybe there are other values out there worth thinking about. That's my point.
TA: So -- one change in posture is to pull the hands away from the eyes and look around, whether Americans want to adopt what they see our there or not. Another question. We looking at a new year, asking if the country is ripe for a new perspective. We'll take a call:
Alan from Cambridge MA: I want to elevate this to another level. The real problem today we have in the human psyche, not just America, is the need for an enemy. All those leaders mentioned -- Ahmadinejad, Chavez, etc. -- all want a virulent enemy psychology. Even over here the left and the right demonize each other as the enemy. George Bush is the enemy of the left. We've got to let go of this enemy psychology individually and collectively as a nation and a people on this planet. Otherwise we're doomed to failure.
TA: Does the historical record lead you to think, Alan, that we can do that? There's been a lot of enemy talk around for a long time!
Alan: Here's an example.Your perceived enemy is actually the one who gets things done for you. Two major political examples would be Richard Nixon -- who was able to reach out to China and establish relations even though his party was virulently anticommunist and the Democrats could never have done that. So an "enemy" was able to do a peaceful move. And Begin was able to reach out to the Arabs for a peace treaty even though his Likkud party were sworn enemies of the Arabs.
TA: So look for some kind of jujitsu there. Let's look at that. David Laitin, how about it? Do you see the country and for that matter the world as more than usually in the grip of what David described as an "enemy psychology"? Is there a way out of that? Could we use some of that energy, flip it around... with an opponent like Al Qaeda?
DL: Well, let me just turn Alan's question around a bit. One of the ironies of the administration in the past four years is not so much that it has created enemies with its "axis of evil," but its failure -- its total failure -- to work with its own allies. Our relations with allies with whom we've built -- for 50 years -- close relations: with Germany, with France, with Spain. These countries and their populations are more and more turning against us because we haven't worked with them, haven't worked with our own friends, much less working with our enemies. So on the whole diplomatic front -- finding common ground with enemies and working with friends -- we have been a marked failure in the past five years.
TA: Eric Foner, we spoke not so long ago with Peter Drucker. We did the last interview with him before his death. He described something which has really stuck with me. He said that he foresees the next 30 years as a painful time for the US of coming to terms with being one of any number of significant powers at the table rather than the sole towering power. Now, from an historical perspective, are we equipped to go down that road without seeing it as an affront, without identifying the bearers of that news as enemies?
EF: Well, I'm not... historians have enough difficulty dealing with what happend in the past to try to figure out the future...
TA: ...Judge from the past then?
EF: Yes. I think Mr. Drucker probably had a very good point there. We are unquestionably the only military super power in the world. But we have seen in Iraq the limits of military power and other forms of power -- economic, social, cultural -- are diffusing around the world. We don't monopolize those forms of power the way we do military power, it seems. So yes: we're going to have to used to a multipolar world in which there are many countries which exercise one or another kind of authority in different spheres. And that does offer a great opportunity for us, not just a psychological challenge. An opportunity to get more in tune -- as Professor Laitin was saying -- with working with other countries not just dictating to them. Forming alliances. This business of enemies? Yes, if you go back in history, it does seem that we need an "other." Many of our ideas are relational. Our ideas about freedom are often defined through some example of lack of freedom, whether it's slavery in the 19th century or Soviet communism in the 20th century, or Naziism. It seems that we do like to think in opposites, polar opposites: friend/enemy, freedom/unfreedom. This does tend, as Professor Laitin said, to lead us to think in very black and white terms about the world and miss all the nuances of grey and shadings of grey that are out there. Of course the main point even of that Iraq Study Commission is even if there are enemies, it's much better to talk to them and negotiate with them. That's what you do with enemies if you possibly can. After all, how did the terrorist war in Ireland, in Northern Ireland, end? The IRA was planting bombs for years. It ended through negotiation. It ended through a settlement. It's not even inconceivable that we can actually negotiate with Al Qaeda, even they are obviously our enemy, having attacked us. That sort of frame of mind doesn't seem to exist right now, but I think iti's something we maybe ought to try to go back to.
TA: That's another line of thought and certainly not one that's been on the table. Stuart from Fernvale, TN.
Stuart: It's a pleasure to be a part of this discussion. I tend to be kind of a gloom and doomer. I feel like I'm a pretty astute student of history. There are a couple of things that concern me. One, I think that because of all the things coming together in this country -- baby boomers, healthcare, social security, zero savings rates, incredible debt, the Chinese holding so many dollars -- this country is a train wreck about to happen for an economic collapse. And I say that having thought about all this a great deal. Not a recession, an economic collapse if we don't get our party straight. An example: NASA keeps talking about wanting to go to the moon and by 2020 having people living on the moon and going to Mars. Yet over here in Louisiana and Mississippi -- in the Gulf Coast area -- there are still people without homes after Katrina. The priorities of the people who are running this country in my opinion are all wrong.
TA: So you've got a kind of apocalyptic view there. What's the fresh thinking you propose as the prescription, Stuart?
Stuart: I think that we need true leadership. Some forethinking true leaders who don't sell themselves to the big business interests.... And bringing Americans together and saying, This is going to be a struggle, there has to be sacrifice... I've never heard once the president of the US say, We have to sacrifice. New thinking, new leadership.
TA: David Laitin: there's a kind of apocalyptic economic view. You and Eric Foner have prescribed pulling in our horns internationally. Stuart is saying forget about the moon. This could all be heard as kind of a diminished posture, a kind of hunkering down sadly posture!
DL: I think that Stuart is right, that we need some leadership to give motivation to address fundamental problems that we face. But many of these problems have solutions, very practical solutions. A combination of practical thinking with leadership to focus our attention on practical solutions...
TA: Jan is calling from Boston.
Jan: It's a wonderful conversation and my mind's all over the place from the original thought I had! I think this country has to really, really look at history. I'm a Vietnam veteran. I was in Vietnam in 1970-71. I graduated high school in 1969 and went right into the medical corps. Today, it's like not one lesson was learned. And this is why I think so many things have to change. Everything I hear -- the comments on September 11, the "war on terrorism" -- I close my eyes and all I hear is what I heard 30 years ago. Put in the word "communism." That's the only thing that's changed. Instead of saying "communism," it's "terrorism."
TA: So flip it over and push us ahead, if you can. What's the new thinking or different posture that might take us somewhere else?
Jan: The different posture has to be total, unequivocal. There is no such thing as a war on terrorism. Terrorism is a concept. We won the American Revolution with terrorism. That's how we fought the war to win our freedom. Historically that's a fact. We were hiding behind trees and throwing rocks. It was a form of terrorism. We have to totally change and start talking to people we perceive as our enemies. To many people the war on terrorism is a war on Muslimism. A few sick radicals blew up the twin towers.
TA: It sounds like an old dynamic to you. Let's look at it. Eric Foner, there's a Vietnam vet saying, Thirty years, and it all sounds like a long echo. What about the pattern in history? How does this country learn lessons from history? Does it? Do you feel we're at a moment now? You said after 9/11, "This is a great teaching moment!" So what do you say now?
EF: I did because I think 9/11 raised, tragically, all these questions about our role in the world, why people held us in perhaps a less higher regard than we held ourselves, what the nature of our relationship with the people of the Middle East has been over time, etc. etc. But I think the caller makes a very good point. If I were going to pinpoint a parallel between the Iraq war and the Vietnam war, it's not simply the fact that we're kind of bogged down in a completely disastrous and no-win situation. Nor is it the fact that... we've just passed 3,000 American deaths which is a tragedy. But hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been killed since we invaded that country. The price is being paid over there much more fully than here. But if we're going to learn anything, I suppose -- and this goes back to Professor Laitin -- is the importance of knowledge, of expertise. The people who went into Vietnam knew nothing about Vietnam. They knew nothing about its history. They knew nothing about its culture. They knew nothing about the communist-nationalist movement there. They looked at it purely through the template of the Cold War. The people who went into Iraq knew nothing about Iraq. They didn't know the difference between Shiites and Sunnis -- we've learned that since. They didn't know the history of Iraq, the Ottoman Empire. They looked at Iraq through an ideological lens. This is going to be the place where we're going to start the process of remaking the whole Middle East in an image that we desire. And, in fact, in both cases people in the State Department who actually had local knowledge were systematically excluded because they were considered too pessimistic and not black-and-white in the way they viewed the situation. So if there's anything we should learn here, it's that you don't just march into a place where you know nothing about the history, culture and politics of that region. We've done it before and I hope maybe we can learn the lesson not to do that again!
TA: A call from Northampton, MA:
Milton: I think it's time for us to move forward. Let's try the phrase "energy independence is national security!" I'm wondering, if we're taking historical perspectives on things, let's look at what happened to Jimmy Carter when he said "Now, now, America -- there are some hard decisions to make and if we're going to move ahead wisely and have a decent world to live in, we're going to have to do some stuff that we may not even want to do." According to my interpretation of what's history for under-20-year-olds, he got swept side by Ronald Reagan who said "Don't worry, America. You're the strongest and the best. Now go back to sleep!" And we did! We've got to figure out a way to sex up doing the right thing enough that the American public is willing to swallow it. I, for one, have faith in the US that we could do without Middle Eastern oil. I don't have faith that we could do it easily or conveniently. But I'm a man of faith on that issue. Does anyone want to reflect on my version of history on that?
TA: David Laitin. Time to "sex up" doing the right thing? "Don't call it Jimmy Carter's malaise speech, call it something hot!" Are Americans ready for that, or is the siren song of "We are the champions" always the trump card?
DL: I think we need leadership that can combine a whole set of problems -- energy, deficit, global warming, healthcare, enormous and growing inequality, Social Security -- to combine this set of problems into a package which allows Americans to think both big and practical. The person who can do that -- combine the big picture with the practical reality -- will take us to the next stage. But let me just reflect on the previous question for a moment -- on the lessons of history and Vietnam. I never thought I would look to 1975 with some nostalgia -- when American forces left in some ignominy from Saigon. But when we left in 1975, there was an organization, a country, a government that could actually project power in South Vietnam and bring order and security to the population and would not threaten American interests when we left. Now, in 2007, if we were to pull out of Iraq the way we pulleld out of Saigon a generation ago, the same thing would not happen. There's no one to project power. There would be internal battles. There would be spaces for terrorists to be able to live and thrive. And there is no... promised land of withdrawal that would give us some security. So history is not repeating itself. The situation in Iraq in 2007 is markedly different from Vietnam.
TA: And you're saying we're looking for a new idea structure that would help us push forward out of that whole. Jonathan's calling from San Diego, CA.
Jonathan: One point I'd like to make is that it seems our whole nation needs to go through another enlightenment era where we pick up all the problems and all their nuances that plague our nation and perhaps the world and recognize and start putting into action problem-solving strategies. We've got a lot of debates. And an example of this is when we look at the pre-Prohibition era... It seems our nation needs that again...
TA: And put those behind a kind of practicality -- that's David Laitin's message as well, and an interesting one. Call from London, England.
Lucia: I don't know if the caller before me said something similar to this... I think the US really has to deal with the environment issue. Reading the news this week it's pretty ghastly -- ice caps melting... I've been doing a lot of research on China and the way China's dealing with energy and the environmental crisis. It seems if the Americans don't get the technological edge on renewables and a new way of dealing with energy, the Chinese are right on our heels... The US really needs to take a leadership role. This has everything to do with the issue of exceptionalism that you were talking about. We have to abandon our notion that we have rights...
TA: ... to unlimited energy...
Lucia: Yes. The global distribution issue really needs to be addressed. We Americans, on top of the food chain, need to take that really seriously.
TA: Eric Foner, what about it? David Laitin was saying we need leadership. You said the same thing yourself on all these fronts. And yet this is not a country that wants to wait for a political Messiah. Maybe we can't. The country has to push ahead, we have to think on our own feet as citizens and then collectively push ahead. Do you see signs of that?
EF: I do. The vacuum at the top somewhat obscures that there are -- on this question of energy -- there are many, many groups, environmental groups and others working to try to devise ways of freeing ourselves from our dependence on Middle Eastern oil, think about new ways of providing energy, etc. I think what we need to do is to harness -- to try to use politics to harness the ideas and the commitment of local movements, local social movements all around the country, and try to get them more involved in the political system. Right now they're alienated because the way Congress has operated over the past six years or so has been to completely ignore these issues. As one caller said, they're afraid of Jimmy Carter. If you tell the truth to the American people about problems, they're afraid people just don't want to hear that. They'd rather hear everything's fine and dandy and we don't have to worry about it. But I believe the last election suggested that maybe the American people are more open to serious and realistic assessments of our problems than many of the political pundits might have thought.
TA: Some kind of practicality once again coming to the fore when we think about a new posture. Sort of a bracing dose of practicality. That's a new idea in itself right now.