Saturday, June 25, 2011 Sunday, January 2, 2011

What of the Clinton Agenda?: an Assessment

George Orwell once wrote that one of the four great motives for writing is ‘sheer egoism’, a “desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death”, and so forth. It is this vain and self-centred outlook on life that drives one to not only to write but to delve into previous works to check that what was written in years past still holds up to scrutiny.

Generally, everything seems to be in order. I make no apologies for referring to Iraq in 2007 as a ‘quagmire’ – remember we now inhabit a world après-Surge. I will too excuse myself not only for consistently referring to anything within a Cold War framework, but also for mentioning a loathing of communism in situations where it really isn’t appropriate. On the latter, sadly some things don’t change.

 

I mention all of this not purely on narcissistic grounds, but because shortly after the inauguration of President Obama on that glorious January day, I wrote a piece called “The Clinton Agenda” (page 17), which argued in favour of the use of ‘smart power’. “Combining the soft power of open dialogue and negotiation and the lingering threat of military potency, smart power will justly be the future vanguard of American foreign policy.

In the article I outlined four main objectives for the new Clinton Agenda, the most pressing of which lay in the Middle East, with the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, as well as problems in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. Two years on, it is time to take stock; a little assessment is required.

"Secretary Clinton must persuade all Arab states to recognise Israel, and stop Hamas and Hezbollah from waging intifadas and wars of attrition.

From January to June 2008, 1,119 Qassam rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip – a prison state controlled by Hamas – into Israeli territory. Their response was Operation Cast Lead, which culminated in a full-scale ground invasion that resulted in the deaths of 300 Hamas militants and a dramatic reduction in the number of attacks on the State. Yet the United States is no closer to neutering Hamas and Hezbollah as forces of aggression than two years ago.

In terms of the wider family of nations, the only Arab nations to be heavily involved in the peace negotiations are Egypt and Jordan – states which already maintain treaties with, and thus recognise the right to existence of, the State of Israel. It is likely that most Arab nations would only recognise Israel if a Palestinian state was established alongside Israel in the Lands of Judea and Samaria.

"Support for Israel must remain steadfast, yet her relations with the United States must become a marriage of equals. Israel must end the process of constructing settlements in Palestinian territories and start abandoning existing ones.

Under the tenure of Benjamin Netanyahu, the power in this marriage has tilted evermore toward Israel. Never was this more evident than in the humiliating, grovelling offer the United States made to Netanyahu to have him retain the freeze on settlement construction. In return for a new three-month construction halt – which did not even include East Jerusalem! – the Obama administration offered unto him a package of security incentives and fighter jets worth $3 billion. Thankfully such an offer was subsequently withdrawn from the table, but construction now continues unabated on the future lands of a Palestinian state.

In the original article, I argued that the Israeli government endorses these illegal settlements as a “coping mechanism for general insecurities over the survival of their state” and to “attract the attention” of the United States. Clinton’s craven offer makes it clear that the second reason proves true, and that Israel is more than successful in her aims. However, there is clearly something much more sinister behind the activities of settlers themselves, namely that they aim to destroy any chance of ever establishing Palestine by making camp all over their territory. Settlements are now more than ever essential to the future of the peace process.

"The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are missions incomplete and unresolved; the current course is deteriorating yet withdrawal would have disastrous consequences.

The liberation of Iraq is almost complete, though more thanks to want President Obama didn’t do. In selecting not to abandon the mission in Mesopotamia wholesale, United States troops helped to maintain some degree of comparative order during the most recent round of elections, with a new government formed in recent weeks. Though the structures of government are as shaky as a fiddler on the roof, the people of Iraq do at least have their freedom, if nothing else.

Afghanistan is an altogether different beast. Again, this is hardly the fault of the President, as for too long President Bush neglected the mission there whilst focused on the removal of Saddam Hussein. It is the desire of the Obama administration to see combat troops removed from harms way by 2014, leaving the nation in the far-from-capable and dirtied hands of Kaiser Karzai. I can only reiterate that such a procedure would indeed have disastrous consequences, not only for the people of Afghanistan, but for the War on Terror at-large.

"The spectre of a nuclear Iran looms large; steps need to be taken in order to ensure this never occurs.”

On this front, the West appears to be too late. Peace talks with the Iranians have thus far produced nothing of note. The economic boycott, while perhaps impacting their economy, has not stopped nuclear proliferation in Persia. The infamous leaked diplomatic cables have revealed that Iran’s Arabian neighbours already suspect her of having the bomb. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia reportedly demanded that the United States “cut the head off the snake”, as did Jordan and Bahrain, sadly in less colourful terms.

All of these problems, the matter of a nuclear Iran is perhaps the great ‘what is to be done?’ question for the Obama administration. Soft power, including multi-power negotiations, as mentioned has failed, particularly given that Russia continues to aid Tehran. Moreover, an Iraqi-style military invasion to remove Khamenei and Ahmadinejad from their thrones would be almost impossible for a myriad of reasons, not least of which is the fact that the Iranian government would not hesitate to slam the nuclear trigger which callous relish. On this matter, containment may a far-from-ideal but necessary temporary measure.

"In Pakistan an inept government is essentially ignoring terrorists operating in their own back garden; smart power has a great role to play in ensuring the government wakes up to the problems in its own territory.

President Obama, or more accurately Vice-President Biden, was in his defence one of the few people to recognise that the war in Afghanistan was in fact an Af-Pak conflict, which crossed mountains and boundaries. The United States military has stepped up the frequency of drone attacks on North and South Waziristan – lawless territories where peoples, ideas and arms flow back and forth across a porous border. In 2010, there were 118 known drone strikes on Pakistani territory.

From the inauguration to the present, the situation with regard to the government in Islamabad does not seem to have improved. Further leaks in July 2010 revealed that the ISI continues to work with Al-Qaida to plan attacks and meet with representatives of the Taliban to help co-ordinate the counter-insurgency strategy. Asif Ali Zardari has proven to be an ineffectual president, with King Abdullah again labelling him the “‘rotten head’ that was infecting the whole body” with regard to global counter-terrorism strategy.

 

On all counts however, it does not seem appropriate to blame the Secretary of State herself for the superficial lack of progress. After all, President Obama has hardly dedicated any of his waking hours to problems occurring outside of the métropole. His entire first term was spent tackling pressing domestic issues such as unemployment and healthcare policy, with only the START treaty as his single international accomplishment.

His self-described shellacking in the midterm elections leaves him with the ‘Party of No’ controlling one branch of the legislature, and a significantly reduced majority in the other, where a supermajority is needed even to get a piece of legislation out of debate and to the floor for a vote. Impotency then is inevitable, but for those who still look to America as the light of the world, his electoral failure brings with it great optimism.

Presidents of the past who have experienced such a rollicking often seek to recast themselves as leaders of the free world; think of Reagan and what comes to mind: Star Wars, Gorbachev, and “tear down this wall!” President Obama ought to do the same to reenergise America’s diplomatic tasks and the doctrine of smart power, as to reignite the beacon, and “restore Washington as that shining city upon a hill, and the United States of America as the glowing symbol of hope for the free and those still bound in chains.”

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The colossus and the tigers

NIALL Ferguson is a colossus. He bestrides History – like the golden idol of Helios by Rhodes’ waters edge – not only physically by virtue of his sizeable frame, but due to the reputation which precedes him. And, like that fabled statue, he acts as a link, a bond between the two flanks of academia: the accessible, public intellectuals; and the savants who swoop about the dark corridors of our great institutions.

Prof. Ferguson has spent most of his recent years working out of the United States, as the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard. Working in a climate of greater academic and personal freedom has enabled him to further develop his ideas on the politics and economics of the Cold War. Now, he has returned to our shores to share with us his findings, as the Philippe Roman Chair in History and International Affairs at the LSE.

His first, extremely well-attended lecture, entitled “The Political Economy of the Cold War”, was constructed in two acts. He opened by proposing one of those unanswerable historical questions of inevitability: “was it a foregone conclusion that the Soviet Union would fall behind the United States.” Conventional wisdom today argues for this motion, primarily, Ferguson asserts, because of the benefit of hindsight.

Having acknowledged this though, he did not go on to repudiate this orthodoxy. It was apparent from the quality and availability of consumer goods during the postwar period that the Soviet Union’s economic superstructure was not built to last. There was a total absence of investment in infrastructure (making a Chernobyl-type disaster inescapable), and as such they could never have kept up with the pace of development in the West.

His statistical evidence appeared to support this claim. The Soviet Union enjoyed robust growth in the 1950s and 60s, but by the 1980s parts of the empire such as the Central Asian republics had fallen into negative growth. Soviet GDP was but 36pc of the levels enjoyed by the United States in 1990, up from only 27pc in 1945. Taking his cue from Stephen Kotkin, Ferguson concluded that only the oil price spike, which occurred in the 1970s, kept the Soviet economy going.

For the sake of argument though, it should be noted that despite this evidence of economic slowdown, the United States believed, almost until the very end, that the Soviet Union was and would remain an economic superpower and threat to the West. Such a belief was not unreasonable at the time: well into the 1980s, the Russians continued to spent vast sums of money on armaments (14pc of GDP in 1990); aid allied regimes fiscally and military; and were reasserting their presence in neighbouring Afghanistan. There were no external signals that – in spite of the grey and miserable lives the people of the East lived during this period – the whole empire would collapse in such swift and undramatic fashion.

Though the central thesis holds, for in a command economic structure such as that the Soviets maintained from the days of Stalin to the dissolution of the empire, there is no room for dynamism and innovation. Therefore it was perhaps inevitable – to use that dreaded word – that the Soviet Union would slip into a position where they would be forced to perpetually play catch-up to the West, in order to meet the true aspirations of the people.

Ferguson’s second act though was perhaps more challenging to the Eurocentric historian. He attempted through statistical manipulation to debunk the idea of the postwar economic miracle, and instead highlighted the “failure of the social democratic model” in the 1970s. Inflation hit double digits during this period, as high as 25pc in the United Kingdom. And, in fact, thanks to the oil boom in part, Soviet growth overtook that of the United States in the later part of that decade.

The real miracle in fact came in East Asia, for Western European reindustrialisation was not remarkable, when compared to the manner in which the ‘tiger economies’ outperformed all other nations during the Cold War. Under the protection of the United States’ security umbrella, Asian share of global GDP increased from 14pc to 34pc in the space of forty-five years. Japan was able to become the world’s premier export economy, and overcame its previously feudal mode of land ownership.

On the surface this in an intriguing premise, but there are signs that indicate that this was not per se a miracle. For the most part, the types of countries Ferguson noted – Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore – are examples of territorial microstates that were able to conjure explosive growth through specialisation in banking, international finance or otherwise, and attract foreign investment through lenient tax policy. In this respect, their story is no different to that of say Liechtenstein or Monaco. The only remarkable element is the speed with which the growth was achieved.

Furthermore, the stories of postwar Japan and West Germany are in fact quite similar. Both states prior to 1941 had economies geared toward heavy industry with respect to total war. What is more, they were each blitzed in the closing months of combat (for the Japanese of course, there was annihilation by way of Little Boy and Fat Man). Reconstruction in West Germany and Japan was achieved rapidly, under allied occupation, along capitalist lines with an emphasis on exports, and, importantly, with democratic regimes in Bonn and Tokyo. It seems incongruous and therefore ahistorical then, to choose to label Japan a miracle and Germany not, merely because it suits Ferguson to trash the European story as a means to giving gravitas to his new East Asian theory.

Primarily it should be stated though, that whilst Ferguson’s new line of inquiry does signal the emergence of an intriguing new approach to Cold War studies, the success stories of Japan, South Korea and others do not in fact add much, if anything, to the war’s overall narrative. Ultimately, while being within the United States’ sphere of influence, those states were rather peripheral to postwar high history. The centres of power, interest and conflict remain the European front, and the various battlefields on which the United States and Soviet Union staged conflict by proxy. As Ferguson alluded to, the Asian chapter of the Cold War in truth opens with the rise of Red China, and comes to a head with the escalation of the wars in Korea and Indochina.

Thus while Prof. Ferguson’s lecture was of tremendous interest – he spoke eloquently and vividly for a good hour or so, holding the audience captive – his new interpretation of the Cold War narrative is one that in truth only adds colour to our pre-existing understanding. It does not and factually can not whitewash over the dominant Eurocentric story.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Some Things Left to Fight For: An Essay

Behold the hills of tomorrow/Behold the limitless sky/Fling wide the gates/To a world that waits/As our journey starts/Behold! Our hearts/Are high.” - - Stephen Sondheim, “The Hills of Tomorrow”, Merrily We Roll Along.

In the opening scene of Merrily We Roll Along – Stephen Sondheim’s fantastically flawed 1981 musical journeying the development of three prodigies from youthful optimism to the emptiness of midlife – Franklin Shepherd returns to his old high school twenty-five years after graduation, to deliver the keynote speech to the class of 1980. “We don’t have to wonder what happened to the world’s ideals any more,” he imparts cornily to the audience after the students’ performance of “The Hills of Tomorrow”, “This gang behind me has taken them all!”

The address now shifts in tone: “I can save you guys so much pain and hurt if I can make you understand today that life isn’t about doing the best; it’s about doing the best you can. A goal is something you aim for more than something you achieve. I’m thinking you better start by hearing the word “practical,” right here, right now, today.” We are to learn, as the musical moves backward through the lives of Frank, Charley and Mary, that he long ago surrendered his creative dreams in favour of the safety of financial security, and later wealth and opulence: “Every day I wake up singing/“Look at me I’m rich, and happy!””

As Frank tries to convince the class of the value of compromise, the pupils bite back: “Compromise? I haven’t even started!” Try as he might, he can’t crush the enthusiasm and expectation of youth. Fast-forward to our shared present though, and for this generation – in which I am a cog – it seems as though idealism is, if not flat-lining, certainly on life-support with bleak prospects. We, for the most part, seem to possess neither the will nor desire to gaze wistfully upon the hills of tomorrow, or appreciate and marvel at a notion of limitless skies or a blank canvas with its endless possibilities.

Our tawdry condition

Of Generation Y, the name given by demographers to those born between 1982 and 1995, it must be said that its members will, this autumn, likely be focused more on the outcome of The X Factor than the results of the impending midterm elections in the United States. The majority would rather check out who’s hot and who’s not on the pages of NOW and Grazia, as opposed to reading the freshest essays published in the New Statesman or The Spectator.  They are more likely to be able to name all the members of JLS than one of the G20.

We no longer read, and when we do, the subject matter is awfully ordinary and staid and the quality of writing appalling. In 1968, the author and polymath Gore Vidal sent shockwaves penetrating through society with the release of Myra Breckinridge, which questioned rigid concepts of sexuality and offered instead the notion of fluidity between the genders, imagining a world where men and women can “play out the most elaborate of dreams, where there will be no limits to the human spirit’s play.” Now, the best selling novels are a series of trashy, half-spun vampire stories that are merely vehicles for a stifling abstinence-only agenda, authored by a Mormon whose popularity is entirely disproportional to her literary abilities.

The situation only deteriorates when it comes to poetry or the theatre. On the latter, you only need to survey marquees in the West End – from the bland Jersey Boys to the insufferable Legally Blonde – to see before you the decline of our common culture. Politically, Generation Y are disengaged and voluntarily disenfranchised: they choose not to vote by and large, or they cross the box for a slushy, dull version of conservatism, going against their best interests.

In essence, it would be appear that our generation has entirely given up on the possibility that we can alter our surroundings, combat the orthodoxy and change the world for the better. We, along with society-at-large, have slipped into political senility and settled into a kind of banal, morose cultural daze. We inhabit a nightmarish world of meaningless days and dreamless nights, such is our tawdry condition.

The politics of compromise

The placidity of Generation Y is an unfortunate by-product of the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the grand ideological debate. With the consignment of the Soviet Union to the annals of history, and the grand sweep-up of tyranny in the East, evil was evicted from our common stoop and for the briefest of moments we were absent of enemy. In the aftermath, the perception arose that the major questions of our time had been settled, and deep philosophical inquiry was no longer necessary. The world we created after 1989 was perfect: it was to be our societal model until the end of days, and any desire to carry on striving for something better merely withered away.

We, Generation Y, have grown up and formed in this post-communistic, post-intellectual age, a world absent of foe and cause. As a result, most of the cohort has opted for a total catharsis from politics altogether, in favour of that suffocating cultural malaise. Those that stayed merely sort refuge from extremities or difficult choices, and curled up in the cuddly winter sweater that is the common ground.

It is this, the politics of compromise, which is killing the revolutionary spirit just as much as the more pervasive mantra ‘ignorance is bliss’. In pursuit of electability, politicians and their theoretical counterparts have abandoned presenting bold ideas to the public, fleeing the mountaintops in favour of campaigning in the marshy lowlands that lie in between.

The centre ground has become our political monoculture because the narrative it presents is more pleasant to digest: it is easier to concede than to clash. We are all the worse for it. “Conflict may be painful,” Christopher Hitchens writes in Letters to a Young Contrarian, “but the pursuit of the painless solution leads to the painful outcome of mindlessness and pointlessness; the apotheosis of the ostrich.”

Recapturing idealism

If our generation is to survive, make an impact and leave behind any sort of legacy whatsoever save a wholly negative one, we need to raise our heads out of the sand and rediscover and redefine idealism for the twenty-first century. Idealism needs to become something relatable to the present, not a notion confined to the misty watercolour memories of a handful of tired old 68ers. One of the reasons we are no longer attracted to any sort of radicalism is because the aging keepers of the flame are totally alien to us. We have no common language or connection with tousled hippies with flowers in their hair, Trotskyites in donkey jackets encircling the United States embassy, or unwashed anarchists smashing in branches of McDonalds.

Generation Y requires something altogether more relatable, modern and dignified. We must pay little deference to the past, though, like those peaceniks, we ought to strive for the betterment of humanity. But we must not repeat the mistakes of our forefathers. It is important therefore that we do not confuse our common noble effort to improve the personal condition, by wasting time imbibing ourselves with ideologies that aim for some state of perfection. Utopias, as Martin Amis correctly noted, are always living hells, preposterous and impossible to achieve. Indeed, the world has been scarred too often – too many mass graves dug, too few lives lived to their fullest – as a direct result of figures and groups, inspired by an idyll, goose-stepping down the same broken and twisted road, justifying their merciless means for some nirvanic end.

As such, we must look to distance ourselves from the outmoded ideologies of the twentieth century, pockets of which still survive on campuses the length and breadth of the country. This is said not only in reference to the right, in terms of fascism and neo-Nazism of course, but the left: communism and socialism are relics, and must be treated as such. Followers of the Manifesto are diminishing, and their numbers are so few that they now appear less like a political grouping than a cult, worshipping the ghosts and demons of fallen regimes and dead ideas. We shall not progress as a generation by surrendering to the thought patterns of our parents.

For us, idealism ought to mean something entirely different. As youth, we are at our best as the ultimate defenders of free thought and expression, the true keepers of the flame of liberty. Previous generations believed that improving the human condition meant seeking to impose near-tyrannical modes of political operation upon millions of people, whether they sort it or not and whatever the cost, since the arrival at utopia would cancel out the crimes committed to get there.

Generation Y, on the other hand, must strive to defend liberty in all corners of the world, as to unchain and alleviate people from the dictators and despots our forebears supported in solidarity with their ridiculous notions of what was good, or rather necessary. No longer can there be such a thing as a ‘good tyrant’, not another Pinochet or Reza Shah, Nasser or Arafat. If we can do this, if we together carry the banner of liberty and freedom, then we will quickly uncover that there are causes worth taking on and enemies in the midst.

Outposts of tyranny

The fag-end of Generation X failed its last major political test, in deciding en masse to coalesce around the genocidal, megalomaniacal clansman and one-time President of Iraq Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti, in opposing the work of the humanitarian coalition seeking to topple him and install a democratic regime in the Middle East. Their defences of this dictator were pitifully weak even when were trying their hardest: they revelled in his supposed secularism, ignoring the fact that the words “Allahu akhar” were written on the national flag in his own handwriting; they praised his ability to keep the country together, even though he only achieved this by slaughtering thousands of his fellow countrymen.

George W. Bush was perhaps one of the worst United States presidents of the post-Roosevelt era, but on the concept of freedom at least he was consistent to his country’s values. The “Axis of Evil” speech was misleading, in that it implied that Saddam Hussein, the Ayatollah Khamenei and Kim Jong-il were somehow in cahoots in the fashion of the Legion of Doom, though it was right to shame these leaders, in identifying their regimes as being so cruel and domineering of its people that they warrant staunch opposition.

Thanks to the interventionist actions of the Bush administration, two of the world’s most abhorrent governments have been removed – in Iraq and Afghanistan – though only the passage of time will show whether democratic values can entrench themselves in these societies, demonstrating that such tough action and great loss of life was truly necessary. As a generation, we can best console ourselves, safe in the knowledge that we never did anything to undermine the efforts of Iraqis and Afghanis to construct a healthier and happier existence for themselves.

Condoleezza Rice, in a speech in 2005, identified in addition to North Korea, Iran and Syria, four more nations as being overtly authoritarian and dictatorial: Belarus, Burma, Cuba and Zimbabwe. This list is by no means extensive, for it does not broaden its remit to include Mideastern madmen like Colonel Gaddafi, and the number of communistic regimes – or modern slave states – that cling on for dear life as the world turns at a faster pace than they can keep up with.

Our primary duty, being in receipt of freedom, is to shine the light of liberty to these blackest corners of the world, where governments have extinguished even the dimmest embers. We must speak out in any forum, campaign with solidarity groups, and aid and assist fledging democratic dissident movements. Our goal must be to realise a world were citizens from Habana to Pyongyang through Tehran can live rather than just survive, where they no longer fear the sound of a short, sharp rat-a-tat-tat on the front door, and can sleep serenely knowing that when they stir in the morning, the person lying next to them will still be by their side.

An inclusive secularism

Yet tyranny does not always appear as a black moustachioed face gazing down from every street corner (though, since totalitarianism is a cliché, it does more often than not). If we are to fight against oppression as a whole, ensuring that all people are free to act and think as they choose, then it would foolish to focus purely on noticeably oppressive strongmen and one-party states, ignoring the tyranny of religion.

The battle lines being etched out here are not atheism against faith, or belief versus disbelief. This is purely a matter of free thought and expression, and thus we should be looking to defend not only freedom of religion but from religion: away from those ghouls who seek to impose their values upon other people. “You have nothing to fear from me,” Julian the Apostate tells bishops in the fictionalised account of his life by Gore Vidal, “if you behave with propriety and obey the civil laws and conduct your disputes without resorting, as you have in past, to fire and the knife.”

The model for religious freedom and tolerance comes from the United States, not only from the First Amendment which specifies the separation of church and state, but from the writings of Thomas Jefferson. As the author of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Bill on Religious Freedom, he stated that “all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

When religion and state converge, freedom will invariably suffer. It is a fatal symbiosis, and in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran where religion is the state, the concoction is even more entrenched and noxious. Thanks to the marriage of convenience that brought Houses of al-Saud and al-Wahhab to power, the Saudi people live out each day under the constant gaze of the mutaween, who have the authority to arrest unrelated men and women caught socialising in public spaces. In Iran, the return of the senile spectre Ayatollah Khomeini from banishment stabbed the true revolution in the womb, driving thousands of Persians into exile and consigning those who stayed to years of misery, war and strife.

Many have died in these theocracies, at the hand of clerical authority. Take the case of the fifteen schoolgirls who died in a blaze in Mecca: the mutaween would not let them flee the burning building, as they were not wearing the correct Islamic dress. Or, perhaps examine the fate of Sakineh Ashtiani, who now waits in limbo with a sentence of stoning for the crime of adultery looming over her. Generation Y, as part of the struggle for the protection of liberty, must seek to take the fight to these holy (or rather, unholy) autarkies, for the sake of religious freedom itself.

On the home front too, there is work to be done, for we cannot have true freedom of religion, and a just separation of church and state in the Jeffersonian tradition, whilst the Church of England exists as an organ of the state, and bishops sit in the House of Lords. It is a peculiar anachronism of a medieval religious conflict that the government of the United Kingdom continues to endorse an official state church, with the monarch as its head. Even as public opinion has evolved to the point of areligiosity, the Church continues to wield a grossly disproportionate influence over the business of the state. The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams still has the ear of authority, even as he continues to spout bile regarding the adoption of Shari’a law as “unavoidable”. We must seek to correct this gross imbalance, and embrace an inclusive secularism.

Answering the question of our time

Of all the unresolved matters and unanswered questions that plague global development – and prospects for some version of peace, stability and economic cooperation – by far the most pressing is how to find a just resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Peace in the Middle East has eluded generations of politicians, philosophers and protesters, in spite of the significant yet incremental steps made, in the form of concordances between Israel and her neighbours.

We have to be the first generation to divorce ourselves from the sorts of toxic ideologies that tied people so dogmatically to one side or another, in particular those who associated socialism and international leftism with supporting the Palestinian cause at all costs – to the point of justifying terrorism, and the demagogic rule of Yasser Arafat, the man who single-handedly stopped the last decent negotiations in their tracks. “[Barak] had taken great risks to win a more secure future for Israel”, President Clinton wrote in his memoir in reference to the Camp David negotiations, “Arafat’s rejection of my proposal after Barak accepted it was an error of historical proportions.”

Nor though, must we swing too far the other way, and make excuses for the sorts of superstitious and dangerous ultra-Orthodox Jews who are building settlements on the West Bank as to bring on the Messiah and rid Eretz Yisrael of heretical influences. Instead, we must come to the realisation that if there is to be peace in the Holy Land, then two peoples in one land must have two states. There must be a State of Israel alongside a Palestinian nation, cooperating economically and tolerating each other religiously.

The landscape of Israel today would be unrecognisable to our forebears. The hills of Jerusalem are a little more scarred, as a Security Barrier deemed necessary by the Knesset tears its way through Judea and Samaria. The Second Intifada begun by Arafat has entrenched suspicion and hatred between Israelis and Palestinians, still felt today via a succession of tit-for-tat reprisals that are costing both Jewish and Muslim lives. We are slowly approaching a tipping point, whereby any further delay in coming to a resolution and making a peace would make the current stalemate near irreversible, raising the prospect of another war.

The last United States administration, for all its aforementioned flaws, was the first to, while maintaining an unwavering alliance with the State of Israel, explicitly recognise the viability of the two-state solution – the only solution – in using for the first time the term ‘Palestinian state’. It would be foolish to let this small victory go unnoticed. Generation Y must pursue peace in the Middle East by supporting an equalised two-state solution, campaigning free from orthodox ideological biases.

Conclusion

Having followed Frank’s journey back to its humbler beginnings, we find him, Charley and Mary on the rooftop of their apartment. The year is 1957, and they waiting expectantly for a glimpse of Sputnik. There together, admiring the wonder of man’s achievements, Frank sings: “Feel how it quivers/on the brink…” “What?” asks Charley. “Everything!” he replies, “It’s our time/breathe it in/worlds to change and worlds to win/our turn coming through/me and you, pal/me and you.” Set within the plot of Merrily We Roll Along, these lyrics take on greater resonance, becoming all the more heartbreaking; the audience having already seen the husk of a man Frank later becomes. Out of context however, the song “Our Time” is an uplifting ballad about limitless skies and endless possibilities; the hills of tomorrow.

Now back at the start, as valedictorian of the class of 1955, Frank acknowledges his commencement address the debt of gratitude he owes to all his classmates, and humbly imparts in this ‘simply yet mighty thought’: “It is the obligation we have been given; it is not to turn out the same. It is to grow, to accomplish, to change the world.” Indeed, it is the responsibility of our generation to recapture that idealism which we have lost, and reinventing it to suit us and our time, an idealism of liberty, freedom and democracy, in order to accomplish the ultimate goal of freeing all men from forms of servitude and serfdom.

Do not let anybody tell you that everything has already been decided, that what we have is satisfactory, and that what we see and experience as our present will inevitability be our future too. We can be a great, if not greater generation, than the ones that preceded us. Yet we must not wallow, as we do now, in a state of perpetual ambivalence to the struggles going on around us. Generation Y, take heed – there are still some things left to fight for.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Empire

Through his literature and essays, over the course of the past sixty years Gore Vidal has held up a mirror to American society and demanded that it stare pointedly at the ugly thing it has become. In The City and the Pillar and Myra Breckinridge, Vidal challenged conventional attitudes towards sexuality; the United States he created in Duluth was but a gaudy, poorly-plotted soap opera.

Politically Vidal has always been somewhat of an enigma. Superficially he would appear to be a liberal – in the American sense of the word – to the left of even the most progressive elements of the Democratic Party: “The United States has nothing to teach Cuba”, he declared flippantly in 2009. In 1987, Vidal suggested that as a means to combating the rise of China and Japan, the time had come ‘for the United States to make cause with the Soviet Union’.

On the other hand, Vidal has a nasty isolationist streak in the tradition of Charles Lindbergh. He has long stated to anyone who would listen that he believes Roosevelt both knew of the attack on Pearl Harbour in advance of the event, and that he incited it through provocative acts toward the Japanese: “They deliberately cut off Japan’s oil supplies, then refused to sell them scrap metal, and so on.” Moreover, he has openly questioned the necessity of the United States’ involvement in the Second World War, particularly on the European front.

The bastardised synergy of these two extreme ideological wants is Vidal’s idea of the American Empire. Truth be told, such a concept is not strictly his, however he has proven to be its most vocal proponent since the obliteration of Hiroshima. To summarise, the choice of President Truman to intervene in Korea marked the cementation of the United States’ transition from republic to empire. Each conflict since from Vietnam to Kosovo and into Iraq has been an example of imperialist adventure: “the Republic ended in 1950. Since then we have had an imperial system.”

That Vidal has developed the concept of America as empire ought not to be a great surprise. It is in the nature of great minds to view their respective nations in a state of constant decline from cradle to grave. Moreover, for Vidal the notion of an era of American imperialism after 1950 is an extension of the tendency of older egos to look back upon their youth as a golden age of civilisation. The needless, pointless glorification of the 1960s by embittered baby boomers exemplifies this point entirely.

Vidal’s cantankerousness toward his Motherland has only gotten worse in the past ten years, since the advent of September 11 and the incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq.  On the former, he argues that the United States was ‘probably’ in on it, though he has no evidence whatsoever for this. When it comes to Afghanistan, Vidal asserts that it is all a matter of natural resources: “[The United States] wanted stability in Afghanistan to build the pipeline. The Taliban did not give them stability, so they decided to overthrow them”. The ever-more bombastic and incoherent nature of his sentences seems to be coupled with an unavoidable age-induced decline in his mental capacity.

Post-9/11 reverse hysteria aside, the perception of America as empire is not without grounding, particularly with reference to nineteenth century interventions, in the Philippines most famously. Mark Twain declared that ‘we have gone there to conquer, not to redeem’; the United States held onto the territory for a sizeable chunk of the twentieth century.

But when it comes to the postwar settlement, the period on which Vidal pontificates and occasionally bloviates, the whole interpretation is far-fetched, verging on ahistorical. It is embarrassing that such a great mind and polymath has the audacity to suggest that the United States forced the Cold War upon the Soviet Union has a means to creating a perpetual war, solidifying the role of the military-industrial complex at the heart of the American economy.

The United States’ use of force in the latter half of the torrid twentieth century has been at its best moments liberating. On occasions there has been unnecessary meddling under the guise of containment or the protection of national interests, but certainly since the collapse of the ‘evil empire’ America has been the protector of democracy and enemy of the dictator and oppressor. See Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq for evidence.

Gore Vidal’s constant harping and sniping at the land that gave him everything in the autumn of his years is an unfortunate blight and stain on the record of America’s greatest novelist and chronicler. His later years are scarred by the release of tawdry collections of half-baked essays, where the concept of the American Empire is laboured upon and stretched beyond the point of breakage. “I am ashamed to be an American”, he told David Frost in 2008.

He has few years, perhaps months, left. When the eulogies are written, may the decline be set aside and the drivel forgotten. Vidal was at his best when clasping that mirror. Let his novels, both historical and fantastical, be his legacy.