The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Friday, November 20, 2009

RULES FOR RADICALS, OR HOW NOT TO MAKE A KNISH: In Hemingway’s short story, ‘God rest you merry gentlemen,’ two Kansas City emergency room doctors make fun of a colleague named Wilcox as they wait for an emergency to happen on Christmas Day. Doctor Wilcox, as Hemingway makes clear, is not the best doctor in either Kansas City (there are two of them, for those of you new to American geography, a category you’ll be happy to know includes most American schoolchildren); in a short flashback, one of his medical school professors tells Wilcox that he has done his best to keep Wilcox from becoming a physician at all, but having failed to prevent this, the professor tells his erstwhile student to buy a medical book, The Young Doctor’s Friend and Guide, and urges him to use it. Doctor Wilcox, no doubt mindful of his professional inadequacies, does buy the book and uses it frequently, with, one imagines, no small degree of success. Doctor Wilcox’s troubles, and the subject of his colleagues’ jokes, arrived the night before, when the good doctor is faced with an emergency not listed in his book. For those of you interested in what happens next and the details of the emergency, I suggest you find a copy of The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway and read the story for yourselves.

I bring up this very lengthy literary prefacing in order to talk about current problems in American foreign policy (that was a considerable leap, wasn’t it? You thought this was about Hemingway, didn’t you?) The root of this administration’s current foreign policy dilemma is this: like Doctor Wilcox, the former junior Senator from Illinois gets most of his practical professional knowledge from a book, and while Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals may help the oppressed speak truth to power or to Fox News, which I think are the same thing and I know Valerie Jarrett thinks so, too, the book says very little about how to deal with the vast hordes of icky foreigners who infest the Earth’s surface. So here are those rules, with some comments and cream cheese on the side.

1.) Power is not only what you have but what people think you have.

Perception is very important. The trouble here is that the opposite is also true. Before the First World War, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II spent millions of marks building the Imperial High Seas Fleet, making it one of the world’s most powerful combat fleets. And then, when the war broke out, the Kaiser would not let the High Seas Fleet fight for fear that Britain’s Royal Navy would sink his expensive ships. So, after all the millions spent on building the fleet, and with the exception of a few minor raids and one major naval attack (the Battle of Jutland), the Imperial High Seas Fleet spent the war tied up at dockside, gathering rust and barnacles, while the Royal Navy’s blockade slowly choked the life out of the German war economy. In the end, Germany lost the war anyway and the Kaiser didn’t have to worry about the British sinking his ships; before the war officially ended, the Germans scuttled the fleet themselves. If people don’t think you have the nerve to use your power, then it doesn’t really matter how much power you have, does it?

2.) Never go outside the experience of your people.

Well, it’s a little late to worry about this one, isn’t it? The former junior Senator and his merry crew of Chicagoans already occupy the White House, where they are now fully prepared, like the youth of Mr. Wilde’s aphorism, to give the nation the full benefit of their inexperience.

3.) Whenever possible, go outside the experience of the enemy.

The current administration does this quite a lot, actually. Except for the Queen, God bless her, and the odd dictator—Castro and Gaddafi come immediately to mind—most of the world’s rulers did not rule their countries in the late 1970’s, the last time the United States attempted an experiment in on the job chief executive training. One trusts that the former junior Senator will learn not to shoot himself in the foot any more than is absolutely necessary, but until he does, he will confuse and confound the enemies of this our Great Republic, who are used to a very different style of American foreign policy. What we have here is a matter of two learning curves: can the administration learn what it is doing before the nation’s enemies conclude that the foreign policy of the United States of America looks more than a little like Gertrude Stein’s description of Oakland: there’s no there there. If the latter scenario occurs first, the nation is in for a rough patch for the next few years.

4.) Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules.

This is a very admirable concept, to be sure, but one that suffers in actual practice, since the major rule in our enemies’ book of rules is this: we get to stay on top, no matter what. The next time we see the mullahs in Iran shooting down demonstrators in the streets we should remember that these guys are living up to their book of rules.

5.) Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.

Yes, it is. I can see crowds of ACORN and Code Pink activists laughing Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-il out of office right now, those crazy guys. Ridicule is just that strong. I mean, hey, it worked like a charm in Tiananmen Square, didn’t it?

6.) A good tactic is one your people enjoy.

Very true, but I don’t think that threatening not to pick up Russia’s garbage is really going to work. The White House staff may long for the days whey they could do this sort of thing in Chicago, but I don’t think Vladimir Putin cares very much one way or the other. He’s already got people to pick up his garbage.

7.) A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.

I blame George W. Bush for this.

8.) Keep the pressure on with different tactics and actions, and utilize all events of the period for your purpose.

The administration does not believe in keeping the pressure on the nation’s enemies at all, unless they’re Republicans, and the administration is not interested in the events of the period, unless it helps them pass their health care program. This poses something of a problem for the foreign policy people, whose choices in dealing with those who wish the Republic ill are no longer carrots and sticks, but carrots and more carrots, with the enemy getting a choice of sliced, diced, or julienned.

9.) The threat is usually more terrifying than the reality.

I don’t think the Israelis are going to accept this argument. The operative word here is usually. Usually is a wonderful word with a fine family and a nice house in the suburbs, but it is a word that smacks of conventional wisdom, which is wisdom only as long as everyone accepts the convention. Religious fanatics don’t accept other people’s conventions; they don’t have to, what with their personal hotline to the Almighty, and if it is the will of Allah that the State of Israel disappear in a radioactive mushroom cloud then that’s what’s going to happen. For the people telling the Israelis to calm down, one need only point out that the Jews have heard this sort of rhetoric before within the memory of people still living and the result was disastrous for everyone involved.

10.) The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure on the opposition.

Is there opposition to the United States? If there is, it is clearly the fault of the preceding administration.

11.) If you push a negative hard enough and deep enough, it will break through into its counterside.

In many countries, if you push a negative hard enough and deep enough, the government will shoot you for your troubles. And since the CIA will be CYAing for the near future, the people in these countries who might help us push a negative won’t.

12.) The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.

True, but what if no one wants your constructive alternative? In 2000, Clinton had a constructive alternative and Arafat launched the Intifada anyway. Go figure.

13.) Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.

And Vladimir Putin and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are not Sarah Palin. In the first place, she has better legs than they do, and second, they have large internal security establishments (the only thing that changed about the old KGB was its acronym—it’s the FSB now) dedicated to keeping them in their jobs. And third, they can use all these same rules against the United States and probably with greater effect, since they don’t have to worry about critics in the media or in the government undermining the message. Or, as George C. Scott says in Patton just as he blasts the Afrika Korps to bits at the battle of El Guettar, “Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!” This does not bode well for the future, I think.

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