Friday, December 23, 2011

"The more things change...": Statecraft and Malice Aforethought Edition

Let's flash back to America near the turn of the century, shall we?
And we can only say that it looks very much as though, in this case, the action of the United States government had been determined primarily on the basis of a very able and quiet intrigue by a few strategically placed persons in Washington, an intrigue which received absolution, forgiveness, and a sort of a public blessing by virtue of war hysteria—of the fact that … victory was so thrilling and pleasing to the American public—but which, had its results been otherwise, might well have found its ending in the rigors of a severe and extremely unpleasant congressional investigation.
Ok, you've found me out. The turn of which century?, you perceptively ask. It's obvious we're not talking about the close of the twentieth, of course; the very suggestion of a modern Congress investigating the executive for a foreign policy failure is risible.

The ellipses above mark where I omitted Admiral Dewey's name in George Kennan's analysis of the fleet action at Manila Bay and subsequent dispatch of an expeditionary army to the Philippines in 1898. Among the "strategically placed persons" were both Dewey and Theodore Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy and aspiring imperialist.

What should we conclude from this episode?
For its part, Congress seemed incapable of analyzing a presidential proposal and protecting its institutional powers. The decision to go to war cast a dark shadow over the health of U.S. political institutions and the celebrated system of democratic debate and checks and balances. 
The dismal performances of the executive and legislative branches raise disturbing questions about the capacity and desire of the United States to function as a republican form of government.
That's all? Oh, wait, sorry: that's Louis Fisher's verdict, in a 2003 Political Science Quarterly article (pdf), on the embarrassing show put on by the White House and Congress in the run-up to the Iraq war. Sorry for that distracting and totally irrelevant non-sequitur! Let's get back to Dewey at Manila.
Thus our government, to the accompaniment of great congressional and popular acclaim, inaugurated hostilities against another country in a situation of which it can only be said that the possibilities of a settlement by measures short of war had been by no means exhausted.
Why do you hate freedom, Kennan, you disgusting peacenik?

[Kennan's words are reproduced from American Diplomacy, a book adaptation of several lectures he gave in 1950. The quotes are from pages 14 and 12, respectively.]

1 comment:

  1. Gulliver - I am a complete dork. Reasons for my not posting for ages (er, sorry about that. Still one of my favorite sites out there and I do read regularly):

    1. Didn't have a computer at home for a bit (which I liked - a lot).
    2. My phone wouldn't let me post here and I am not a gadget person and can't be bothered to figure that stuff out.
    3. Got a new PC and a MacBook Pro and then felt so depressed by the commentary on Afghanistan/Pakistan that I just didn't feel like commenting on COIN.
    5. It turns out there was a very simple reason why I couldn't post here with my new computers but even in the annals of my absent mindedness, it's pretty stupid.
    6. I figured it out.
    7. Now, no one is posting anymore.

    Eh, I'm sort of burnt out on the blogging thing too and I will never warm to Twitter or any of the other social media sites.

    Anyway, just rambling. Interesting post. Belated Happy Holidays to you all.