Thursday, July 28, 2011

#47: America Between the Wars From 11/9 to 9/11: The Misunderstood Years Between the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Start of the War On Terror by Derek Chollet and James Goldgeiger

Public Affairs Books, 2008: 403 pages

"It is the legacy of 9/11 that we still live with today, as Republicans and Democrats try to define the direction the country should take." (xii)

This book is very good. I mean, really good. I felt I learned more about the current state of American Politics reading this than I have from any other source. Both authors are Political Science professors, the bibliography includes writings from across the political spectrum. Having watched both the Berlin Wall and the Two Towers come down on television, this book forced me to an uncomfortable pair of understandings.

1. The freshman that I will teach this year were born in 1997 or 1998. This makes them too young to ever remember the Berlin Wall, as it disappeared 8 years before they were born. It also makes them too young to have solid memories of 9/11 as they were three or four years old. The authors of the text convincingly argue that the great political debates of the 1990s are still very much extant; this makes me want to put much more emphasis in my teaching on the horrors of the Cold War and the importance of the Wall. The overriding questions about the use of military force in the 1990s were centered on States vs. Global networks. In a sense, they still are. In either event, I feel old.

2. This book features a President saying that the UN was "a light that failed" but willing to work internationally to solve problems. This was not Bill Clinton, but the first President Bush (7-11). It is shocking in reading this text how isolationist and conservative the Republican party has become in the last 20 years. This is most definitely not the party of Ronald Reagan, no matter how much they invoke him. According to the authors, the much derided Neocons were looking to invoke U.S. power unilaterally, but with a moral mandate. In this, they went away from George H.W. Bush. Democrats looked to a revival of "strength at home and the inevitable power of globalization." (42) I found this accurate, as most Neocons (Chaney, Wolfowitz, etc.) are actually closer on international issues to JFK or Harry Truman than they are anyone else. What emerges from these pages is the growing realization that the Bachmanns and Tea Partiers of the U.S. are the scion of Pat Buchanan and Newt Gingrich. Gingrich himself was far more interested in foreign policy than his fellow "Contract Republicans" of 1994, but they got away from him. (108-110)

2010 was not the first time the Republican Party elected "a group of lawmakers who scoffed at the idea the U.S. had to be engaged in the world and...proudly declared they did not have passports." That describes the 1994 mid term election as well, the last time there was a cooked up budget fight. (109) This book actually makes me think that there should be four parties in American politics: Internationalists and Isolationists would be two. Al Gore was the biggest "hawk" in the Clinton Administration on two subjects. The first is Iraq and the second is terrorism. The Clinton Administration "deserves a lot of credit for taking the threat of terrorism seriously...but were never able to develop a coherent plan to deal with it." (272). While this has made Clinton a punching bag for numerous Republicans, the inference I draw from the text is that the Republicans who came into office in 2000 were woefully unprepared for al-Qaeda and focused on Iraq because it was what they knew.

It is this dichotomy that would form the other two parties: Statists (rogue states such as North Korea and countries such as China are the biggest threats) vs. Networkists (terrorists, global financial meltdowns are the biggest threats.) for example, Bush II would be in some ways a Isolationist Statist on foreign policy, while Gore was an Internationalist Networkist. The authors do not play what ifs, but the book raises great questions of the effect of 9/11 if Gore had been elected. It would have been vastly different; Gore was against the Iraq War in 2003 because of this split. Gore had been agitating for Saddam Hussein's removal or suppression since 1994; in 2003 there was simply no point to it. Overall, a very thought provoking text. Highly recommended.

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