Mr Rajah Nadeswaran, known to friends as Nades and fans as Citizen Nades, launched his second book Curi Curi Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur this past week.
The acerbic if not combative journalist– and there are more adjectives out there for him– is no stranger to anyone in Malaysia. He is an investigative reporter, a consumer rights crusader, a no-nonsense editor and for a while, a sharp and hardworking part-time subeditor.
At his launch, a few of us who worked with him or trained under or supervised him were asked about the future of journalism and whether we would see any future Nadeswarans in our industry now blighted by fake news, propaganda, listicles, web-clips and such.
Or rather, the digital age where newspapers are dying and revenue is shrinking.
There is no easy answer. Media survives in any form, as does good journalism. But is there a market for the reportage that Nadeswaran excelled in? Is there a market for political reporting or analysis at a time when governments and politicians just want their narratives to be the prime directive?
Is post-truth the standard now? That the ones who wield power decide what is true and those who think otherwise cannot share their thoughts and face the wrath for even thinking out aloud?
So can a future Nadeswaran exist? And how did this Nadeswaran prosper and grow from the time he began as a sports stringer in 1969 and turn into this famed journalist who made people in power accountable?
Although he has lamented that not much action was ever taken despite the copious amounts of copy written about the scandals that only grow in the amount of money lost or stolen or wasted.
The simple fact is this. Nades came up at a time when Malaysian newspapers invested in journalism and journalists. Getting the best, letting and giving them time and money to pursue issues of the day, scandals and any kind of mischief that would make the news.
The government and the powers-that-be were held accountable. These people saw the media as the fourth estate and respected it as much. Those days are sadly gone.
The media today is a tool, and news is just a job of cut-and-paste and whatever that is kosher in the eyes of the powers-that-be. There is not much investment in getting the real stories out, the scoop, the analysis and the follow-up.
Simply put, if we don’t invest in journalism, we won’t get anymore reporters in the style of Nadeswaran. And what he writes might seem small potatoes but it starts there, the little Napoleons who get away with the petty stuff but go on to make their millions later.
The gigantic scandals of today began a long time ago with the smaller cases that Nadeswaran has written in his book. Those cases reveal how Malaysians have been slowly inured to the growing scale of kleptocracy and power abuse over the years.
And even if Nadeswaran has not touched some of those huge scandals known by their acronyms, he has investigated the few that show how easily this “road to hell” is paved with good intentions.
But he is one of a select few able to do it, thanks to his superiors who invested and encouraged him to pursue such scandals. Would we have more of such editors or publishers?
And would anyone pay for such journalism? Or do we just want it for free as fodder for Facebook posts and twitter outrage?
Perhaps we think Malaysian journalism is nowhere near global standards and refuse to invest in it, considering we can get bits and bobs from the global media, which is ironically paid by others.
Funny, our parents and some of us used to pay for local newspapers but balk at the idea of paying for something online. And if we continue refusing to pay and demand that kind of journalism rather than the insipid and patronising stuff that passes as news, then the new Nadeswarans won’t ever appear.
I noted this at a Paris media forum weeks after The Malaysian Insider was shut down and it is something to note for those still wondering what the future of Malaysian journalism is. “You pay to be informed or get it free to be influenced.”
So if you want the kind of news and columns that Nadeswaran wrote before he formally retired from print journalism last December, you have to pay. Or just pick up the licensed newspapers, read the free news portals, watch regulated broadcasters and be happy with what they offer as news.
And there’s always Facebook and other social media that shares all kind of articles. Like this.
AUDACITY How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Created a Legacy That Will Prevail
By Jonathan Chait
240 pp. Custom House. $27.99.
If everything had gone according to plan, these would be valedictory days for President Obama. With the economy humming if not roaring and his approval ratings higher than they were through most of his time in office, Obama expected to take a victory lap, map out his memoir and hand the reins to a like-minded successor to build on his accomplishments.
But everything did not go according to plan, and instead he finds himself bequeathing his record to Donald J. Trump, a man he disdains, who was elected in large part on a promise to take a sledgehammer to anything with Obama’s name on it. Obama is left trying to explain the debacle, salvage what he can from the wreckage and make his case to history that his was still a transformative presidency.
In his corner will be Jonathan Chait of New York magazine and one of the country’s leading progressive voices, who has come to Obama’s defense with “Audacity,” a timely, trenchant and relentlessly argued book presenting the 44th President in terms that he himself would approve. Not only did Obama change America for the better, Chait writes, he also cemented a new policy infrastructure that will resist Trump’s efforts to tear it down.
What is Obama’s Legacy?–On Time Will Tell–Audacity or Mendacity
To be sure, this was a book written largely before the November election with the evident expectation that Hillary Clinton would be preparing to move into the Oval Office, and it cannot help reading that way. After Trump shocked the world with his improbable Electoral College victory, Chait tweaked the text to address the upheaval in American politics. But he did not change his fundamental conclusion or buy into the notion that Clinton’s defeat represented a harsh verdict on Obama.
The Gung-ho POTUS who thinks everything is a piece of cake
“She lost despite, not because of, her association with the popular sitting president,” Chait writes. Republicans nurtured the opposite conclusion to justify a demolition of Obama’s new foundation. “The myth of repudiation had a clear purpose: to make it appear both fair and inevitable that the conquering Republican government would destroy Obama’s legacy.”
But, he adds, “the fatalistic conclusion that Trump can erase Obama’s achievements is overstated — perhaps even completely false.” Chait’s point is that “good ideas advance in fits and stops” and that Obama’s presidency “represented one of those great bursts” that will not simply be erased despite momentary setbacks.
The Facial Expression that may have caused her the Presidency
Whether that is the case remains to be seen. Certainly in facing the judgment of history, much of the record that Obama will point to is beyond any Republican effort to reverse. He helped pull the country back from the brink of the economic abyss, saved the auto industry, ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and broke the ultimate racial barrier.
Yet despite Chait’s confidence in the durability of Obama’s legacy, other elements of his agenda appear to be in jeopardy. Obama’s health care program, efforts to ease immigration rules, crackdowns on emissions by coal-fired plants, regulations on Wall Street, labor rules intended to improve worker conditions and a free-trade pact with Asia all seem unlikely to survive, at least in the form he prefers. The fates of his nuclear agreement with Iran and his diplomatic opening to Cuba are at least in question, although Trump may ultimately find it harder than he thinks to unravel either.
Other Presidents, of course, have been followed by successors of the other party who in the end sustained their signal accomplishments. Dwight Eisenhower did not undo Harry Truman’s record, nor did John Kennedy undo Eisenhower’s. Richard Nixon, given the chance, left Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society largely in place. Even Obama preserved many of George W. Bush’s achievements, including the vast bulk of his tax cuts, his Medicare expansion, his AIDS-fighting program in Africa and his homeland security architecture.
Trump, on the other hand, is more mercurial, so it is harder to predict how far he will go to wipe out Obama’s imprint on the country. He has sent conflicting signals since the election about his commitment to following through on certain campaign promises while Obama has quietly tried to nudge him away from a radical change.
It could well be that Trump unintentionally helps his predecessor’s case for history as a point of contrast — that whatever Obama’s leadership flaws, his calm, no-drama performance will look better in hindsight to many Americans. At the same time, it raises the question that if Obama was so successful, why do so many Americans feel so dissatisfied and left behind? How could an America that twice chose Barack Obama decide to replace him with Donald Trump?
Beyond noting Clinton’s popular-vote margin, Chait, like others on the left, points to willful distortion by Republicans determined from the start to tear down Obama and cynical news media that were complicit in that strategy. But he also faults liberals who were too willing to flay a president they agreed with because he failed to achieve some impossible standard of progressive perfection.
Indeed, Chait’s book seems more like an argument with the left than with the right. “The yawning chasm between the scale of Obama’s achievements and the mood of his supporters presents one of the mysteries of the era,” he writes. “Its resolution also helps us understand how to judge the Obama Presidency. What would a successful presidency even look like? Would Democrats recognize one if they saw it?”
While Chait agrees that “Obama has not done the job perfectly,” he echoes Michael Grunwald in “The New New Deal” by making the case that his programs will have long-lasting if often overlooked impact. Obama’s fiscal stimulus package, for instance, was “a gigantic success,” not only by helping stanch job losses but also by investing in the future in the form of renewable energy, transportation infrastructure and scientific research.
Likewise, Obama’s health care program covered 20 million more Americans while also producing an “economic miracle,” Chait says, in slowing the rise of medical costs even though premiums for some continued to rise sharply. Obama’s green energy revolution, he adds, has already brought down climate change emissions and “changed the economic calculus irreversibly.” While Obama’s foreign policy may not have transformed the world, Chait concludes, he made incremental progress and avoided catastrophic mistakes.
For disenchanted Obama supporters, this appraisal may seem like a surprise. The Obama who leaves office has traveled a long way from the hope-and-change moment eight years ago. In his early days, he was likened to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Kennedy, even Ronald Reagan. When things turned dark, he was compared unfavorably with Johnson, Jimmy Carter, even George W. Bush.
“The various theories of disconsolate liberals all suffer from a failure to compare Obama with any plausible baseline,” Chait says. “Instead they compare Obama with an imaginary president — either an imaginary Obama or a fantasy version of a past president.”
Now he will be compared with his successor, and that is a comparison Chait thinks favors Obama. “Trump is the poisoned chalice of a failed ideology,” he writes. “Obama, not Trump, is destined to supply the model for American governance in the decades to come.”
Chait’s argument probably will not persuade many on the right, who still see a president who expanded the size and reach of government at home while undercutting American authority abroad. But it may encourage those on the left and in the middle to come around again to a president they once believed in.
For Obama, that may be enough for now. Deprived of the valediction he had sought in November, Obama may want to keep a copy of Chait’s volume on the night stand in his new home in Washington’s Kalorama neighborhood.
When John F. Kennedy won the election to become the 35th President of the United States, he met with his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who repeatedly warned him that the tiny, poverty-stricken country of Laos was the “cork in the bottle. If Laos fell, then Thailand, the Philippines, and of course Chiang Kai-shek [Taiwan] would go.”
Men who say they fought a secret war for the C.I.A. are still on the run with their families in the mountain jungles of Laos.Credit Tomas Van Houtryve/The International Herald Tribune
If Laos were lost, the outgoing president said, the rest of Southeast Asia would follow, and the gateway to India would be opened to the communists.
In actual fact, at that point Laos was so poor that its single most important source of foreign exchange in 1961 was from collect cable tolls by journalists, warning that Laos was a linchpin in the Communist drive for world dominance.
If it was irrelevant, in the words of one CIA operative, it was a “great place to have a war,” the title of a new and disheartening book on the secret war prosecuted by the CIA that convulsed the country for the next 13 years by Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. Kurlantzick is the author of three other books on Asia.
The misperception of Laos’s strategic importance was tragic. Thailand, with its strong Monarchist institutions, was never going to go communist. British-controlled Malaya, with its majority Malay Muslim population and a communist insurgency centered in a minority of the minority Chinese, was battling an uprising that numerically could never succeed. The Hukbalahap rebellion in the Philippines was a rural rebellion that could never really touch the Catholic urban population. The domino theory was pretty much nonsense.
Does America care?
But from such misconceptions tragedies arise. And in the decades that followed, Laos would be visited by a calamity that its population, numbering only 2.1 million in 1961, could hardly bear. In this important book, Kurlantzick writes in excruciating detail how the decisions by Eisenhower and Kennedy would turn the CIA from a spy organization to one whose primary role was covert warfare, involving the agency in ever-more controversial actions across the world.
As Laos became a bigger priority for the agency, “the program would balloon in men and budget. More and more Americans would arrive,” Kurlantzick writes. “It would grow into a massive undertaking run by CIA operatives on the ground, and by the agency and its allies in the Lao capital and back in Washington. The United States would build a vast proxy army of hill tribes in Laos—mostly Hmong but also several other ethnic minorities—that would number in the tens of thousands. Overall, by the end of the war in 1975, some two 200,000 Laotians, both civilians and military, had perished, including at least 30,000 Hmong.
Nearly twice as many Laotians were wounded by ground fighting and by bombing, and 750,000 of them, Kurlantzick writes, were made refugees. More than 700 Americans died, almost all of them CIA operatives, contractors, or US military men working on loan to the CIA, although many of the American deaths would not be revealed to the public for decades.
The US dropped more bombs on Laos than it did on Hitler’s Germany during the Second World War, causing untold hardships to the Laotian people. This is the legacy of bot.h Eisenhower and Kennedy.
Today, Laos remains strewn with land mines and other antipersonnel weapons that take the lives and limbs of people almost every day. A third of the bombs dropped on Laos – famously, more than were dropped on Germany during World War II – were undetonated and continue to explode. Since the Laotian war ended, tens of thousands of Laotians, mostly from hill tribes little removed from the stone age, would become refugees and were flung into a vast diaspora in which few have found anything like success.
By most measures, the CIA’s adventure in Laos was a debacle that virtually destroyed a civilization and was lost when the country basically disappeared into the Vietnamese orbit. But by the CIA’s yardstick, it was an outright success.
William Colby, who became the director of the agency, had strongly advocated shipping arms to Vang Pao, the charismatic Hmong leader, and his men. Both he and his predecessor, Richard Helms, believed the agency had proven itself in warfare and had held off communism far more effectively than the US military had. Helms contended that the secret war had occupied 70,000 North Vietnamese troops who might otherwise have fought Americans in Vietnam, Kurlantzick writes.
After 1975, men with experience in the secret Laotian war started up the ladder of success all over the world. That included Richard Holm, a young CIA case officer who would rise to take over the CIA station in Paris. Ted Shackley would go on to become the associate deputy director for covert operations. Daniel Arnold, the last CIA station chief in Vientiane before the communist takeover, became the chief of the evaluations and plans department of the agency’s Directorate of Operations. Dozens more were similarly on track for agency success.
“Many clandestine officers who had worked in Laos brought to other posts a belief that the agency could now handle warfare,” Kurlantzick writes. “Indeed, several of the agency’s own initial classified retrospectives emphasized not only that [Operation] Momentum had been successful in bleeding North Vietnam and prolonging the United States’ ability to fight in Indochina but also that the operation had given the agency war- fighting skills.”
Eventually, the CIA’s adventurism caught up with it. Utah Sen. Frank Church led a committee probe that brought new oversight. Admiral Stansfield Turner, appointed by then President Jimmy Carter, cut 800 agency jobs in what Kurlantzick said was to be “the worst moment in the agency’s history.”
But when Ronald Reagan came into office, that ended the CIA reforms. Bill Casey, Reagan’s wily CIA director, called the Laotian operations a template for pushing back communism. Budgets skyrocketed. Restrictions were removed on covert operations, especially in Afghanistan, then occupied by the Soviet Union. Casey engineered the training and equipping of the mujahedeen with Stinger rockets. Eventually the muj bled the Soviet Union so badly that its Afghan adventure contributed to the ruin of the Soviet economy.
That too ended in disaster, with the mujahedeen turning their guns on each other, virtually wrecking the country so badly that the citizenry welcomed the Taliban because they promised law and order.
The CIA applied those lessons across Central America, bolstering a series of repressive governments in Guatemala and other countries that have resulted in floods of political refugees seeking to get into the United States.
In the 1990s, as in the late 1970s, despite a downsizing, the CIA paramilitary forces continued to expand, operating in Somalia and training Iraqi exiles opposing the Saddam Hussein regime, and training other guerilla armies.
Today intelligence gathering – the original mission of the agency – “is secondary in the agency’s mission to kill enemies of the United States,” Kurlantzick writes. He notes that other reporting revealed in 2015 that the CIA and Special Forces together had created a kind of global super-elite paramilitary force. In early 2015 the agency’s senior paramilitary specialist was made head of the CIA’s entire clandestine service, which is responsible for nearly all overseas intelligence operations.
Today, as Kurlantzick demonstrates, “CIA activities go almost totally unwatched by the public and the media. The strategies used to keep most of the war on terror secret—prohibiting reporters from coming near CIA paramilitary operations, classifying even the most basic details of paramilitary campaigns, relying almost exclusively on technology, contractors, and local forces rather than US ground troops—would have been completely familiar to the CIA operatives running the Laos war.”
Obama’s effort to fix an overextended foreign policy is a lot like Nixon and Kissinger’s.
Stephen Sestanovich, The Atlantic, January/February 2016 Issue
No matter how many books are written about Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, there’s always room on the shelf for more. Our fascination with these two larger-than-life characters hardly needs explaining. There’s the doomed and moody president, manic when he wasn’t melancholic, and his super-brainy, super-vain, Nobel Prize–winning adviser—a pair of shape-shifting personalities who took control of American foreign policy at its lowest moment of the Cold War. They combined ambitious statesmanship with jaw-dropping weirdness, sparked controversies that continue to this day, and—while pretending otherwise—were obsessively desirous of our good opinion. How could we not be just as interested in them?
It’s not only the pull of great characters, of course, that keeps the Nixon and Kissinger books coming. There’s plenty of fresh material, too. The many titles of the past year draw on reams of declassified documents; the final batch of Oval Office tapes; first-ever access to some personal papers; extensive interviews with friends, family members, and staffers; and much more. It’s a measure of the abundant information available that one author can pay tribute to another scholar by calling him the only person to have read the “millions of papers at the Nixon Library.” These new books come by their juice and color the old-fashioned way—through tedious, time-consuming research.
The torrent of information has not, alas, given us the unified picture of Nixon and Kissinger that we might have hoped for. The clash of views is sharper than ever. The journalist Evan Thomas (Being Nixon: A Man Divided) and the historian Niall Ferguson (volume one of whose Kissinger biography is arrestingly subtitled The Idealist) are determined to humanize their subjects. Leading the vilification effort are another journalist, Tim Weiner (One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon), and another historian, Greg Grandin (Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman). The first two want to complicate and soften our views; the second pair aim to simplify and harden them.
Nixon and Kissinger combined ambitious statesmanship with jaw-dropping weirdness.
Humanizers and vilifiers do share a crucial premise. They believe the story of Nixon and Kissinger can best be told by delving into their personalities and peculiarities, mapping every quirk, savoring every tape, noting every outrageous conversation and vulgarity. (The president does seem to have been very fond of the word nut-cutting.) And it’s not enough to be inside the Oval Office, listening to the astonishing things Nixon and Kissinger said. These books want us inside their heads, too, inside their wild ids and egos. Humanizers and vilifiers don’t disagree on where to look, only on what they find there. Of the young Kissinger’s overripe prose, Grandin jokes, “You can almost hear Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ in the background.” Ferguson claims to hear Bob Dylan.
More than 40 years after Nixon resigned the presidency, and almost 40 after Kissinger stepped down as secretary of state, this hyper-personalized approach is nearly spent. Both demonizers and defenders have produced valuable and entertaining books. They have clarified the strengths and weaknesses, prejudices and preferences, and thoroughly unsettling pathologies of two major public figures. But it’s time for a change—and not just because the flow of shocking revelations is slowing down. We have found out amazing things about what went on in the Nixon White House. Even so, we have much to learn by trying to see past some of the horrifying details. We need to appreciate the story’s ordinariness as well.
Our first step should be back to the history books. Nixon and Kissinger were neither the first nor the last to manage American foreign policy while the country was feeling overextended and unsure of itself. How do their efforts compare with what others in the same situation have done—most recently, and notably, Barack Obama? The answer gives Nixon and Kissinger’s record more-normal human proportions, and makes clear that they were neither madmen nor demigods. It clarifies the challenges they faced—and our own.
Putting aside our long debate about these two will not be easy. Both critics and admirers have what seem like pretty good arguments. If you hate Nixon and Kissinger, you talk about the cruel—some say criminal—use of American military power in Indochina. If you admire them, you stress their pathbreaking diplomatic initiatives. Christmas bombing versus opening to China—the conversation hasn’t changed much in four decades.
These same fixations animate the latest books. Speaking for the demonizers, Weiner says that “subterfuge and brutality” were Nixon’s “preferred” policy mode. The two halves of this formula—the harsh use of force produced by hidden decision making—also loom large in Grandin’s book. Both authors recount the regular bursts of military power that marked the Nixon presidency—the secret bombing of Cambodia (complete with falsified record-keeping arranged by the new national-security adviser, Henry Kissinger), the Cambodian invasion of 1970, the copycat (and thoroughly botched) operation in Laos in 1971, the mining of Haiphong harbor in 1972, and the Christmas bombing of North Vietnam later that year.
Most of these episodes have a similar story line, with the White House overruling (or excluding) dissenting Cabinet secretaries, and the president barking out orders for more planes, more bombs, more sorties, more destruction. Nixon can seem completely indifferent to domestic consequences. “Let this country go up in flames,” we hear him say—and he wasn’t referring to Vietnam. (This particular outburst, to be fair, may have been the liquor talking—Weiner’s Nixon is often drunk.)
Like much of the Nixon and Kissinger record, these stories could be recounted with less vilifying zeal, but the basic facts are hard to dispute. No matter how much new information they present, the humanizers will win few converts on the secrecy, illegality, and brutality front. Thomas may convince us that Nixon was awkward and graceless and insecure (didn’t we sort of know this?), but no amount of talk about poor social skills will make anyone see his foreign policy differently. If you believe Nixon was a war criminal, hearing that he was an introvert will not change your mind.
Ferguson’s Kissinger faces the same hurdles. Calling the book a bildungsroman, Ferguson gamely tries to make Kissinger a regular-guy genius. He was devoted to his cocker spaniel, Smoky; he was just as snotty to his parents as any bright young man; and so forth. But it’s a struggle. The book also reminds us that, long before entering government service, Henry Kissinger the young Harvard professor made his reputation with one big policy idea—that small nuclear weapons were essential instruments of modern war. There was a reason people thought him a model for Dr. Strangelove.
Of course, when the humanizers get a chance to talk about their favorite elements of the Nixon and Kissinger record, they too make a lot of points that aren’t easily countered. Who, after all, is against visionary and effective diplomacy? Speaking at Nixon’s funeral in 1994, Bill Clinton helped along this reassessment of the former president. Nixon’s legacy, he said, had to be judged “in totality”—meaning, let’s remember the good stuff. Even the megalomania and weirdness look a lot more excusable, perhaps almost desirable, when measured against the demands of high-pressure peacemaking. As Joe Biden said recently at a Washington awards dinner, with the former secretary of state present, “I’m still intimidated by Dr. Kissinger.”
Thomas’s summary aphorism about Nixon—that “inner torment and even a touch of wickedness can be catalysts to greatness”—may not seem quite enough to justify the bombing of Cambodia. Still, when offered the goal of a “generation of peace,” which Nixon conjured in his second inaugural address, the demonizers become a lot less vehement. They don’t drop their overall indictment. (Détente, Grandin gripes in a footnote, just didn’t go far enough—Washington should have “thoroughly demilitarized.”) But few critics challenge the idea that their favorite villains were genuinely innovative strategists.
Polemics like these keep us from seeing Nixon and Kissinger in a fresh light. For that, we must weigh their record alongside those of other leaders who were given the job of ending America’s stalemated wars. Judged merely by temperament, after all, Dwight Eisenhower, who wound down the Korean War, and Barack Obama, who reduced U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, could hardly be further from Richard Nixon. And their advisers are not to be confused with Henry Kissinger. Yet personal differences were not decisive. Eisenhower and Obama chose policies strikingly similar to Nixon’s.
All three presidents began with the same analysis of their strategic predicament. For the long haul—to avoid going “down the drain as a great power,” as Nixon put it—America needed a downsized foreign policy that better connected ends and means. A “spasmodic reaction to the stimulus of emergencies”—Eisenhower’s description of the way his predecessor, Harry Truman, had done things—was not sustainable, politically or economically. Ike’s answer: military budget cuts that were deeper and faster than any his successors made.
In the same spirit, Nixon told Congress in his 1970 “State of the World” message that the United States could no longer “conceive all the plans, design all the programs, execute all the decisions, and undertake all the defense of the free nations of the world.” Other nations had to do more too—if only, as Kissinger had written just before becoming national-security adviser, to “discipline our occasional impetuosity.” Barack Obama thought of George W. Bush much as Nixon did of Lyndon B. Johnson and Eisenhower did of Truman, and he certainly agreed with Kissinger. The core of a better strategy was to stop, as Obama had it, doing “stupid shit.”
Eisenhower, Nixon, and Obama further agreed on how to implement their analysis—by making the big decisions themselves. Humanizers and vilifiers tend to see the centralization of power in the White House as an outgrowth of Nixon’s and Kissinger’s personal oddities. In fact, strong policy control is characteristic of all retrenchment presidents. Elected to clean up a mess, they tend (with some justice) to view the bureaucracies they inherit as prisoners of old ideas and aims.
How such presidents overcome obstacles can vary; their determination to do so does not. Eisenhower, accustomed to command, asserted his authority without any of Nixon and Kissinger’s extreme secrecy and intrigue. He insisted on a crisp and orderly process—but felt free to ignore the recommendations it produced. Having become president as a foreign-policy neophyte, Obama found it far more difficult than Ike did, at least at first, to impose his views on his advisers. But on one issue after another—from Iran to Ukraine—he has carried the day. Seeing Obama as an ineffectual egghead is as wrong as considering Eisenhower a grandfatherly golfer. Both knew that managing weakness requires a strong hand.
Nixon and Kissinger’s critics insist, of course, that they used their total dominance of policy to make retrenchment a far bloodier and more violent process than it has been in any other administration. This can hardly be doubted. Yet the accusation misses something fundamental, both about how the United States got out of Vietnam, and about how other presidents have limited the risks that accompany a downsized foreign policy.
Richard Nixon’s strategy to achieve peace in Vietnam had two equally important leitmotifs. First was his readiness, at key moments, to rain down death and destruction on the other side. But the second was an unshakable commitment to get the hell out. His “go for broke” military offensives were inseparable from steady troop withdrawals. As he bombed Cambodia in 1969, Nixon started bringing the boys home. The United States invaded Cambodia in 1970, right after the announcement of an even bigger withdrawal. Equally large troop drawdowns were made in 1971. One reason Nixon relied so heavily on airpower to pound North Vietnam in 1972 was that by then he had cut the U.S. force to fewer than 70,000 men, not even 15 percent of the number he began with. Nothing—certainly not the appeals of his generals—ever led Nixon to suspend or slow the pace of withdrawals. He was getting out of the war, and if he used brutal bombing campaigns to cover his retreat, there’s no doubt that it was a retreat. “Peace with honor” was no bar to horrific violence, but it wasn’t exactly mindless, either. Nixon had accepted the inevitable—he just wasn’t ready to have it look as though pulling out had been forced on him.
Outreach to adversaries has followed each of our stalemated wars.
Did other presidents manage the downsizing of foreign policy without the threat or use of compensatory violence? Certainly not. Eisenhower believed that only his threat of nuclear war had achieved an armistice in Korea. (A secret threat, of course, not shared with the American public or U.S. allies.) Ike actually considered and even threatened using nuclear weapons more than any other president. They were his go-to tool for deterring Soviet advances. Where nuclear threats would not do the job, covert action played its part. Some of the most important CIA operations ever, in Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954, were undertaken—or, in the case of the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, planned—under Eisenhower. And who launched the largest Cold War military operation in the Middle East—the American intervention in Lebanon in 1958—simply out of worry that his policy had begun to look too weak? Same president.
For Obama, winding down overseas combat operations has been as firm a goal as it was for Nixon. The troop surge Obama allowed his generals in Afghanistan was limited, and it came with a strict deadline that he devised himself and would not extend, despite repeated appeals. (Only recently, with a tiny force left, did he change his mind about going all the way to zero.) In pulling out of the post-9/11 wars, Obama wanted what Nixon wanted—a way to keep casualties low and limit the risk of big military setbacks. His means—increased use of unmanned drones, greater reliance on Special Operations forces and cyber attacks, aggressive telephone and e-mail intercepts—were ones whose purpose Nixon and Eisenhower would have applauded. Yes, George W. Bush fashioned these policies, but Obama has used them—and the secrecy they depend on—far more fully. He has given them, moreover, a different goal—not to advance Bush’s strategy, but to reverse it.
Nixon and Kissinger’s claim to immortality rests on the other half of their foreign policy—the new relationships they forged with the Soviet Union and China. Their visits to Beijing were among the most skillfully orchestrated moves in American diplomatic history. Alongside détente with Moscow, these initiatives seemed precisely what the country needed for a successful rebound from the Vietnam War.
All the same, the impulse behind the new strategy was far from unique. Outreach to adversaries—and especially an effort to achieve what Kissinger called an “ideological truce”—has followed each of our stalemated wars. Eisenhower, even after the armistice in Korea, felt there was still a public “hunger for peace”—for relief from the rigors of the Cold War—that he had to satisfy. He considered harsh anticommunist rhetoric “tragically stupid and ultimately worthless.” He spent his presidency seeking a Soviet-American agreement that would lift the threat of nuclear war. None of Eisenhower’s proposals—not “Atoms for Peace,” not “Open Skies,” not a nuclear-test ban—led anywhere with Moscow. The hopeful moods he sought to create—the “Spirit of Geneva,” which followed his first meeting with Nikita Khrushchev, in 1955, and the “Spirit of Camp David,” which followed his next one, in 1959—came to nothing.
But Ike persisted. If scaling back the Cold War meant compromising long-standing positions, he was ready for it. He told his advisers that to stop nuclear tests, he would accept pretty much any inspection arrangements Khrushchev proposed. He wanted a 20 percent drawdown of U.S. troops in Europe; when others called for a 25 percent defense-budget increase, he preferred none. (One of the most vocal critics of this early search for détente was Henry Kissinger, who warned that the United States was losing its will to carry on the East-West competition.)
It’s unclear whether Obama has drawn consciously from either Eisenhower or Nixon and Kissinger. Yet the same impulses that shaped their strategy have clearly shaped his. All three administrations shared the goal of developing a post-ideological foreign-policy vocabulary; the conviction that the resource levels devoted to national security were unsustainably high; the desire to make relations with adversaries less competitive; and the hope to use nuclear agreements as levers with which to advance a broader geopolitical (even civilizational) transformation.
Just as Nixon and Kissinger’s critics insist that their crimes were sui generis, their admirers can be counted on to claim that their foreign-policy achievements stand alone. Didn’t the architects of “triangular diplomacy”—détente with the Soviet Union paired with an opening to China—give us a master class in how to manipulate rival powers for mutual benefit? Has any other administration displayed such strategic insight or dazzling professional skill?
The Beijing and Moscow summits of 1972 were, to be sure, a gigantic domestic political triumph. They restored a sense of direction and purpose after years of setbacks. But the president and his adviser thought they were doing much more than pandering to voters. (Of the public’s enthusiasm for his China policy, Nixon’s view was typically disdainful: “The American people are suckers.” He derided the very hope he had created by restoring ties: “ ‘Getting to know you’—all that bullshit.”) The big strategic idea underlying their policy was to preserve American “influence” by yielding “formal predominance.” By playing the two leading Communist states against each other, Washington could get their help in Vietnam, soften the hard ideological edges of their foreign policy, and—especially in the case of China—make them supporters of a continuing global role for the United States.
Little of this big idea unfolded as Nixon and Kissinger had hoped. Soviet and Chinese aid to North Vietnam went up, not down. The dramatic U.S. military operations of 1972—first the mining of Haiphong harbor, and then the Christmas bombing—took place because triangular diplomacy had not kept Hanoi from launching another offensive that spring. The Russians and the Chinese did not force the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table, nor oblige them to accept adverse terms once negotiations began. Nixon and Kissinger had successfully taken the ideological element out of their own relations with the Soviet Union and China, but the same was not true of relations between Moscow and Beijing. If anything, American policy made ideological rivalry between the major Communist states more acute, not less. The United States had to cope with the consequences not only in Vietnam but also, later in the decade, in Africa—as Moscow and Beijing vied for influence in Angola and Ethiopia.
Kissinger has long insisted that after his early visits, China became an advocate of a strong and confident international role for the U.S. (Mao even admitted to being a closet Republican: As he told Nixon in 1972, “I like rightists.”) What Kissinger does not say is that in those same visits he sketched out for his hosts a very different American role, less strong and less confident. Nixon, Kissinger told Zhou Enlai, was not guided by “dreams of the past” and would pursue a different strategy, especially in Asia. The U.S. would not try to “stop history” by propping up weak clients, such as South Vietnam and Taiwan. Kissinger forecast an end to the U.S. military presence in South Korea and expressed alarm at Japan’s growing economic strength. Beijing and Washington, he speculated, might have to unite to oppose Tokyo’s militarism. But he urged Zhou not to push for too much too fast. Washington was still getting used to its new role. “You could not respect us,” he pleaded, “if we found this easy.”
Nothing unites the Nixon and Kissinger record more tightly with those of Eisenhower and Obama than the difference between their first and second terms. For all the trials of downsizing, each of these three presidents made foreign policy a major asset in his first four years—and a ticket to resounding reelection. Adlai Stevenson, George McGovern, and Mitt Romney never had a chance against the masters of retrenchment. But then came something altogether different. A strategy that had been broadly accepted as a way to extricate the United States from over commitment seemed less relevant when the war was over, less valuable in responding to new challenges. Retrenchment, to the surprise of its own architects, became ever more controversial.
Kissinger liked to portray his critics as isolationists or militarists.
What went wrong? To Nixon and Kissinger, the only thing that made any sense of this sudden disenchantment was Watergate. Post-Vietnam demoralization played a part, and so perhaps did skyrocketing oil prices and then recession. But the destructive impact of these events was nothing alongside a domestic political scandal almost unique in American history. Kissinger likes to describe Watergate’s significance this way: “We were castrated.” No wonder the “glittering promise” he felt at the beginning of Nixon’s second term was ultimately wasted.
The postwar-retrenchment blues of other presidents should, however, alert us to other explanations. If, without Watergate, Eisenhower faced a strong second-term challenge to his foreign policy, and Obama has too, then maybe we need to look beyond scandal and “castration” for the real story.
Eisenhower had his own way of explaining his second-term frustrations. The key was Sputnik and what he called, in his famous farewell address, the “military-industrial complex.” When the Soviet Union launched the first globe-circling satellite in 1957, hard-liners with strong corporate backing stoked fears of a “missile gap.” Unfortunately, the president could not reassure the public without compromising top-secret intelligence.
Yet Ike’s version of how his foreign policy lost its allure was incomplete. Fears of a changing nuclear balance were just one factor. In the late 1950s, the U.S. and its friends seemed suddenly on the defensive almost everywhere. New crises erupted in virtually every region of the world—in Berlin, Lebanon, the Taiwan Strait, and Cuba. Calls for a more consistent and better-articulated policy were heard across the political spectrum, even among Eisenhower’s closest advisers. As East-West tensions rose, Ike responded with annoyance. He invoked his own vast foreign-policy experience, said the U.S. was not falling behind, belittled those who wanted to spend more on defense, and impugned their motives. He pushed back, but it was not enough.
Second-term presidents who have managed to tidy up an inherited foreign-policy mess have always been blindsided by what came next. Slow to cope with—or even recognize—new problems, they hope to stick with the winning formulas of their first term. Here too Obama has had much in common with Eisenhower. In the past two years, as he talked about banging out “singles” and “doubles” (while Ukraine was under siege, Syria in flames, and China muscling American allies), Obama channeled Eisenhower’s complacency. When he said that criticism of his nuclear deal with Iran reflected the same mind-set that led to war with Iraq, he displayed Ike’s irritability.
Nixon and Kissinger didn’t see their troubles coming either. Though détente had evoked little real opposition while fighting continued in Vietnam, it fell to earth once the war was over. In the ensuing debate, Kissinger, easily the most acclaimed policy celebrity of modern times, often hurt his own case. He called those who questioned his arms-control offers to Moscow “strategically and politically illiterate.” When support for Soviet dissidents grew in Congress, he inflamed it by advising the president (now Gerald Ford) not to meet Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. When Congress banned covert aid to anti-Soviet guerrillas in Angola, he treated the measure as a kind of peacenik absurdity. (In fact, most Republican senators present—from Jacob Javits to Jesse Helms—had voted against him.)
America’s retrenchment presidents have all hoped to devise a foreign policy for the long haul.
Kissinger liked to portray his critics as isolationists or militarists—the left- and right-wing fringes of serious debate. He claimed to be the prudent centrist, to have the only long-term strategy for advancing the national interest. No setbacks shook this conviction. In an otherwise conciliatory letter he wrote to Daniel Patrick Moynihan shortly after leaving office, Kissinger tried to take the edge off their earlier clashes. As ambassador to the United Nations, Moynihan had seen human rights as a way to retake the ideological high ground of the Cold War. The secretary of state, his nominal boss, would have none of it. “I had to position our policy for a long haul,” Kissinger explained, “while you were concerned with the immediate crisis.”
It was a telling inversion of the truth. Kissinger’s position as chief steward of American foreign policy obliged him to focus on a large portfolio of endless pressing concerns. Yet in managing them on a daily basis, he failed to elaborate a strategy that could command support from one administration to the next. He missed, in fact, exactly what Eisenhower—and later, Obama—missed. He had lost the center.
There was no shortage of reasons for this result. The American people may have wanted uplift more than nuance. They may have been too easily frightened by new difficulties. They may have responded too quickly to partisanship. They may have sensed that their leaders were not really leveling with them, were too in thrall to their own ideas, could not see how to change course. Whatever the reason, the public needed a more compelling and coherent description of what Kissinger was trying to do. It wasn’t Watergate that held him back.
America’s retrenchment presidents teach an ironic lesson. Coming in to manage a disaster, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Barack Obama all hoped to devise a foreign policy for the United States that would avoid big swings between over- and undercommitment. What they came up with, however, turned out to command support only as an interim measure. Once it became clear that the world was still a confusing and tumultuous place, the acclaim they had enjoyed was soon forgotten. The resurgence of heated policy debate didn’t just disappoint them—it infuriated them. They found their second terms a bumpy ride, full of criticisms they felt were unfair and unconstructive. They got angry at American politics, and at the American people.
If retrenchment presidents are irritable, they are also surprisingly inarticulate. Few rise to the challenge of explaining their policies. In the course of their careers, Eisenhower, Nixon, and Obama were all known—in very different ways—for clear and persuasive expression. Yet this gift failed them when their ostensibly long-haul foreign policy came under attack. Persuasiveness gave way to petulance.
Strategies of retrenchment always lose their shine.
Inarticulateness overcame other presidents who carried out strategies of retrenchment. Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter adopted many of Nixon’s policies, especially toward China and the Soviet Union—and explained them no better. George H. W. Bush, having achieved both the successful conclusion of the Cold War and victory in the Persian Gulf, sought to de-emphasize foreign policy in the second half of his presidency. But international upheavals—from the Balkans to Somalia—did not subside. Like other downsizers, Bush seemed unsure how to handle these new issues—much less how to talk about them.
Retrenchment is a hard product to market. Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Bush 41, and Obama belong to an honor roll of presidents all with the same problem: how to convince the American people that their foreign policy was more successful, less rudderless and reactive, than it seemed. Believing that they had fashioned a creative response to national war weariness, they found themselves labeled too passive. Certain that theirs was the standard against which all other strategies should be measured, they were called confused. Confident that they had put American foreign policy on a sustainable course that hardly needed to be debated, they lost control of the conversation.
As these presidents discovered, strategies of retrenchment always lose their shine. That’s normal. For Henry Kissinger, of course, normal will be a hard verdict to accept. But it fits. He had only a very difficult assignment, we can now see, not a unique one. In carrying it out, he did some things well, others not so well, and still others badly. With the perspective that time affords, both the calumny and the praise he and Nixon elicited seem obviously excessive. They were sometimes brilliant, sometimes foolish, sometimes lucky, sometimes terribly unlucky. For all their eccentricity and defensive self-regard, their record looks less distinctive than we have usually thought. If, 10 years from now, the next generation of scholars has produced a new shelf of books that help us to see the ordinariness of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, we will understand them—and perhaps ourselves—far better than we do now.
Richard M. Nixon always denied it: to David Frost, to historians and to Lyndon B. Johnson, who had the strongest suspicions and the most cause for outrage at his successor’s rumored treachery. To them all, Nixon insisted that he had not sabotaged Johnson’s 1968 peace initiative to bring the war in Vietnam to an early conclusion. “My God. I would never do anything to encourage” South Vietnam “not to come to the table,” Nixon told Johnson, in a conversation captured on the White House taping system.
Now we know Nixon lied. A newfound cache of notes left by H. R. Haldeman, his closest aide, shows that Nixon directed his campaign’s efforts to scuttle the peace talks, which he feared could give his opponent, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, an edge in the 1968 election. On Oct. 22, 1968, he ordered Haldeman to “monkey wrench” the initiative.
The 37th president has been enjoying a bit of a revival recently, as his achievements in foreign policy and the landmark domestic legislation he signed into law draw favorable comparisons to the presidents (and president-elect) that followed. A new, $15 million face-lift at the Nixon presidential library, while not burying the Watergate scandals, spotlights his considerable record of accomplishments.
Haldeman’s notes return us to the dark side. Amid the reappraisals, we must now weigh apparently criminal behavior that, given the human lives at stake and the decade of carnage that followed in Southeast Asia, may be more reprehensible than anything Nixon did in Watergate.
Nixon had entered the fall campaign with a lead over Humphrey, but the gap was closing that October. Henry A. Kissinger, then an outside Republican adviser, had called, alerting Nixon that a deal was in the works: If Johnson would halt all bombing of North Vietnam, the Soviets pledged to have Hanoi engage in constructive talks to end a war that had already claimed 30,000 American lives.
Anna Chennault, 1969.Credit Ira Gay Sealy/The Denver Post, via Getty Images
But Nixon had a pipeline to Saigon, where the South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, feared that Johnson would sell him out. If Thieu would stall the talks, Nixon could portray Johnson’s actions as a cheap political trick. The conduit was Anna Chennault, a Republican doyenne and Nixon fund-raiser, and a member of the pro-nationalist China lobby, with connections across Asia.
“! Keep Anna Chennault working on” South Vietnam, Haldeman scrawled, recording Nixon’s orders. “Any other way to monkey wrench it? Anything RN can do.”
Nixon told Haldeman to have Rose Mary Woods, the candidate’s personal secretary, contact another nationalist Chinese figure — the businessman Louis Kung — and have him press Thieu as well. “Tell him hold firm,” Nixon said.
Nixon also sought help from Chiang Kai-shek, the President of Taiwan. And he ordered Haldeman to have his vice-presidential candidate, Spiro T. Agnew, threaten the C.I.A. director, Richard Helms. Helms’s hopes of keeping his job under Nixon depended on his pliancy, Agnew was to say. “Tell him we want the truth — or he hasn’t got the job,” Nixon said.
Throughout his life, Nixon feared disclosure of this skulduggery. “I did nothing to undercut them,” he told Frost in their 1977 interviews. “As far as Madame Chennault or any number of other people,” he added, “I did not authorize them and I had no knowledge of any contact with the South Vietnamese at that point, urging them not to.” Even after Watergate, he made it a point of character. “I couldn’t have done that in conscience.”
Nixon had cause to lie. His actions appear to violate federal law, which prohibits private citizens from trying to “defeat the measures of the United States.” His lawyers fought throughout Nixon’s life to keep the records of the 1968 campaign private. The broad outline of “the Chennault affair” would dribble out over the years. But the lack of evidence of Nixon’s direct involvement gave pause to historians and afforded his loyalists a defense.
Time has yielded Nixon’s secrets. Haldeman’s notes were opened quietly at the presidential library in 2007, where I came upon them in my research for a biography of the former president. They contain other gems, like Haldeman’s notations of a promise, made by Nixon to Southern Republicans, that he would retreat on civil rights and “lay off pro-Negro crap” if elected president. There are notes from Nixon’s 1962 California gubernatorial campaign, in which he and his aides discuss the need to wiretap political foes.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that, absent Nixon, talks would have proceeded, let alone ended the war. But Johnson and his advisers, at least, believed in their mission and its prospects for success.
When Johnson got word of Nixon’s meddling, he ordered the F.B.I. to track Chennault’s movements. She “contacted Vietnam Ambassador Bui Diem,” one report from the surveillance noted, “and advised him that she had received a message from her boss … to give personally to the ambassador. She said the message was … ‘Hold on. We are gonna win. … Please tell your boss to hold on.’ ”
In a conversation with the Republican senator Everett Dirksen, the minority leader, Johnson lashed out at Nixon. “I’m reading their hand, Everett,” Johnson told his old friend. “This is treason.”
“I know,” Dirksen said mournfully.
Johnson’s closest aides urged him to unmask Nixon’s actions. But on a Nov. 4 conference call, they concluded that they could not go public because, among other factors, they lacked the “absolute proof,” as Defense Secretary Clark Clifford put it, of Nixon’s direct involvement.
A History of U.S. Foreign Affairs in Which Grandiose Ambitions Trump Realism
By David E. Sanger
Less than a year later George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan, followed by Iraq, and began some of the grandest, and least successful, American experiments in shaping other societies since the Marshall Plan after World War II. By the time of his second Inaugural Address, Bush was fully converted — he saw America as on a mission. “It is the policy of the United States,” he declared, “to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture.” There was no prioritizing of American national interests. “When you stand for your liberty,” he promised, “we will stand with you.”
Today as another president-elect prepares to take office, he sounds like the George W. Bush who made us coffee in his country kitchen that morning. In two interviews earlier this year, Donald J. Trump told me and Maggie Haberman that he, too, rejected nation-building. He was about “America first,” he said, and that meant sending few American troops abroad except to kill terrorists, and a new, transactional relationship with longtime allies to assure they pay their fair share. Iraq was a “disaster,” which, he said, Barack Obama had worsened.
President George W. Bush on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, May1, 2003.Credit Stephen Jaffe/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Walter A. McDougall, a Professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania who has taken on some of the broadest themes in American society and won a Pulitzer for his brilliant history of the American space program, warns in “The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy” that once in office American presidents are often “susceptible to a utopian temptation.” They adopt a language that he describes as “American civil religion,” wrapping adventurism in a gauzy, semireligious haze. Democracy becomes an export.
In the 19th century, as he describes the history, this was mostly limited to the American continent. But when Manifest Destiny was fulfilled, global destiny beckoned. So from Theodore Roosevelt’s empire-building to Kennedy’s “pay any price” and Reagan’s shining-city-on-a-hill, America kept recommitting itself to remaking the world.
George W. Bush and his Vulcans
This is not a new theme. Walter Russell Mead’s “Special Providence,” published just after the 9/11 attacks, made a convincing case about how different imaginings of American exceptionalism were used to justify adventures abroad, for good and ill.
But McDougall’s study — and his argument that “civil religion” has often trumped a serious discussion of American national interests — comes at a moment when the pendulum of public opinion has swung far in the other direction. Trump owes his election, in part, to his ability to sell a story of an America that builds up a fearsome defensive force but uses it only against outsiders who threaten our safety at home, or our cyber networks. The failed experiments of the past 15 years have, for the moment at least, put Americans in a defensive crouch, if not an isolationist mood. No politician, Democrat or Republican, dares to make the argument today that it is our divine mission to bring liberty to the world. Has the impulse passed for good? History suggests it will be back.
McDougall is at his most convincing describing how American civil religion episodically drove the country’s thinking, from the early days of the Republic to Truman. He’s at his least persuasive explaining more recent times, and it can be argued that he fundamentally misses how a cold-eyed view of America’s national interests became the defining element of Obama’s foreign policy. For if we were truly following the command to stand with liberty, we would have 100,000 troops in Syria.
McDougall starts with founders like Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in 1812 that the “acquisition of Canada” would be “a mere matter of marching,” and would represent “the final expulsion of England from the American continent.” That turned out to be a more complicated task than Jefferson had in mind. But his vision was driven more by military necessity than some sense of religious fervor to spread the American model.
Not quite a century later, though, God and American destiny were fully merged. Trying to figure out what to do with the Philippines, President McKinley decided that the best choice was to annex the territory and “by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow men for whom Christ also died.” In a Memorial Day address at Arlington National Cemetery in 1902, Theodore Roosevelt said America had fought in the Philippines in a “triumph of civilization over forces which stand for the black chaos of savagery and barbarism.”
Franklin Roosevelt’s false isolationism — a cover for his secret preparations for entering the war — gave way as he met Winston Churchill off Newfoundland and the two men “held hands on Sunday and sang Anglican hymns,” a show of solidarity in the battle for survival they knew was at hand. And throughout the Cold War, McDougall argues, the battle against Communism was wrapped not only in the flag, but in some kind of atomic theology. Truman, he notes, “was no theologian. He was not even a very good Southern Baptist, to judge from his fondness for bourbon, poker and profanity.” But when it came to the stewardship of nuclear weapons, he said, “We thank God that it has come to us, instead of to our enemies; and we pray that he may guide us to use it in his ways and for his purposes.”
In the course of one of our campaign interviews, Trump told me that it was during the 1950s — when American civil religion was at its peak — that the country was at its strongest, and that the ’50s are the era he has in mind when he vows to make us “great again.” This gets to the internal dissonance in McDougall’s argument. He makes a convincing case that civil religion was used to justify American power. But that is different from saying that it guided how that power was used.
The nuclear arms race, begun by Truman and accelerated by Eisenhower and Kennedy, came less out of religious fervor than out of a conviction that national survival depended on having the biggest arsenal. The “domino theory” that justified the failed intervention in Vietnam was also about the perception of American vital interests. The same was true for the 2003 invasion of Iraq: It was first and foremost a campaign to disarm Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction. Only when it turned out there were no such weapons did liberating the oppressed Iraqis become Bush’s primary objective.
The hawk wing of Obama’s team — Leon Panetta, Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus — is long gone. They all lost the fight to get Obama to intercede on behalf of the Syrian rebels. Their replacements are facing the harsh reality that sometimes America has little choice but to use its military. They all messed up in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria and contributed to the return of Russia in the Middle East. This is President Emeritus Barack H.Obama’s foreign policy legacy. How will President-Elect Donald J. Trump deal with it? –Din Merican
And what about Barack Obama? In McDougall’s telling, there is little difference between Obama and his predecessor; it was Obama who “echoed Bush in pledging support for ‘democracy from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East.’ ”
Perhaps, but to a reporter covering his presidency, Obama seemed largely immune from civil-religion disease. His actions spoke of a very different philosophy. The Obama Doctrine was all about the “light footprint” — drones, Special Forces and cyber attacks — that defended American interests but occupied no territory, and put few troops at risk. We could not seize, hold and build; only local forces could do that. That explains Obama’s hesitancy to intervene in Syria, even when upward of a half million Syrians were dying in a civil war, or to put an occupation force in Libya. He has even hesitated to retaliate against Russia for attempting to influence the American presidential election — the holy underpinning of the democratic process.
American foreign policy has certainly been influenced by civil religion over the centuries. But the last president didn’t step into that church, and the next one is still figuring it out.
David E. Sanger covers national security for The Times and is the author, most recently, of “Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power.”
A version of this review appears in print on January 1, 2017, on Page BR8 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Nation-Building’s Siren Song. Today’s Paper
In his influential memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy” (2016), J. D. Vance explains why some middle-class Americans turned against Michelle Obama. The first lady, he writes, “tells us that we shouldn’t be feeding our children certain foods, and we hate her for it — not because we think she’s wrong, but because we know she’s right.”
It is possible to dislike the philosopher Peter Singer — born in Australia, he teaches at Princeton University — along similar lines. He is right about so many things, and appears to live so much more virtuously than most of us do, that listening him can make you want to tip a turtle on its back or consume all the endangered seafood that’s left because, as a blowhard I know put it, “If we don’t eat it now, there are a billion people right behind us who will.”
Mr. Singer is best known for his book “Animal Liberation” (1975), a founding text of the contemporary animal-rights movement. More recently he has been interested in effective altruism, which asks: How can we use what we have to help others the most?
He takes aim at sins of omission. In his book “The Life You Can Save” (2009) and elsewhere, he has argued that if relatively affluent Westerners do not regularly donate at least a sliver of our incomes to aid agencies, to prevent the unnecessary deaths of millions of people worldwide, we are in the moral wrong. We are complicit in something close to murder.
In his new book, “Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things That Matter,” Mr. Singer picks up the topics of animal rights and poverty amelioration and runs quite far with them. But he’s written better and more fully about these issues elsewhere; they are not the primary reason to come to this book.
“Ethics in the Real World” comprises short pieces, most of them previously published. This book is interesting because it offers a chance to witness this influential thinker grapple with more offbeat questions.
Among the essay titles here: “Should Adult Sibling Incest Be a Crime?”; “Is It O.K. to Cheat at Football?”; “Tiger Mothers or Elephant Mothers?”; “Rights for Robots?”; and “Kidneys for Sale?” This book is the equivalent of a moral news conference, or a particularly good Terry Gross interview.
Its informal quality is tonic. I’m reminded of a comment by the critic Wilfrid Sheed, who said he would trade half of Lord Byron’s “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” for an interview with him, and “all of ‘Adam Bede’ for the same with George Eliot.”
The first thing that needs to be said about “Ethics in the Real World” is that the writing is mostly dishwater gray. Mr. Singer seems to regard wit as immoral adornment. He picks up his topics as if they were heavy rocks, hauls them a few feet, and drops them, sometimes on our toes. His abstemious style made me long for a despairing wisecrack.
What carries you is the quality of his thought. He is persuasive on so many topics that he makes you wish we could turn the world off, then on again, in an attempt to reset it.
He is an ardent critic of religion. About the notion, strong in my own childhood, that we were born with original sin because Eve flouted God’s decree against eating from the tree of knowledge, he writes: “This is a triply repellent idea, for it implies, firstly, that knowledge is a bad thing, secondly, that disobeying god’s will is the greatest sin of all, and thirdly, that children inherit the sins of their ancestors, and may be justly punished for them.”
He speaks loudly on behalf of tolerance. He believes we should allow for three categories on passports and other documents: “male, female, and indeterminate.” He further argues that the world would be a better place if humans were not so often asked to proclaim their sex on forms.
He leans in favor of permitting adult incest because for him, an essential question is always this one: “When someone proposes making something a criminal offense, we should always ask: who is harmed?”
In one of my favorite passages, he zeros in on those who pay many millions of dollars for paintings while people are starving. The art critic in him emerges.
Writing about the sale of paintings by artists like Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol for obscene sums at Christie’s, he declares: “Why would anyone want to pay tens of millions of dollars for works like these? They are not beautiful, nor do they display great artistic skill. They are not even unusual within the artist’s oeuvres. Do an image search for ‘Barnett Newman’ and you will see many paintings with vertical color bars, usually divided by a thin line. Once Newman had an idea, it seems, he liked to work out all the variations.”
His bottom line: “In a more ethical world, to spend tens of millions of dollars on works of art would be status-lowering, not status-enhancing.”
There is an essay about how to keep a New Year’s resolution. In another he denounces the trend, seen in some Manhattan restaurants and bars, toward decorating with Soviet-era kitsch, including images of Stalin. At least he writes, “To the best of my knowledge, there is no Nazi-themed restaurant in New York; nor is there a Gestapo or SS bar.”
Late in this book, Mr. Singer reports that one of his daughters once asked him, during a car ride, “Would you rather that we were clever or that we were happy?”
Mr. Singer finds moral behavior to be its own kind of cleverness, and certainly happy-making.