Thursday, June 16, 2005
By the way, I've become rather a fan of The Atlantic Monthly lately, though with substantial reservations, and the latest issue is a good mix of what I like and find annoying about the magazine.
The cover story is an impossible-to-take-seriously gloom-mongering piece about the imminent collapse of the American economy. I think James Fallows has been writing this piece annually since 1980. Well, not really, but it's a classic example of how raising the volume reduces the number of people you convince. Among the many things it would be nice for Fallows to acknowledge: that raising taxes does not increase the national savings rate; that our trade relationship with China is a co-dependency that they need at least as much as we do; that while the trade imbalance is extraordinary, the budget imbalance is pretty much in-line with other industrial countries, and much smaller relative to the American economy than the Reagan deficit; and that while Bush signed a terrible Medicare bill, the Democrats are the ones complaining that he didn't make the entitlement big enough, and who are resolutely against any serious attempt to restructure the other entitlement gorilla, Social Security.
But then there's an excellent (if thoroughly depressing) war game of the North Korean situation. They did a similar piece on Iran last year, also excellent, but this one is better because there is more consensus among the participants about just how serious the situation is and more acute disagreement about what to do. As the article says: everyone who walks through the North Korean crisis becomes convinced that it will only get worse, and that there's no good solution. I can attest to that myself, having walked through several times and always come to that conclusion. This piece certainly didn't change my mind. The war game is played by players that run the gamut of the political spectrum: an ultra-hawk who favors war, a Reagan Pentagon official who counsels pulling out, a Carnegie Endowment type who favors one-on-one talks, a Clinton official involved in negotiating the Agreed Framework who defends that deal, and the leader of the game, a former Pentagon wargamer of many years who plays the PAC-COM chief, and argues on the one hand that the target set for any military action is already very difficult, and that protecting Seoul is impossible, but that if we want to have any real military options we need to fight within the next 12-18 months. Sobering indeed.
Then there are the lesser contrasts. We get the latest excruciating installment of Bernard-Henri Levy's travels in search of actual Americans. And we get a delightful romp through English fieldsports with P.J. O'Rourke. We get a lame Iraq board game from Spencer Ackerman and a number of delicious book reviews.
And then we get the Wolfowitz interview with Mark Bowden. Of all the people in this Administration, Wolfowitz is the one I find the most fascinating, and one about whom I have the most conflicted feelings. He is, after all, a nice Jewish boy trying to save the world. And he's a genuine liberal, with real sympathy for the sufferers of the world, even those who suffer at the hands of those with whom he sympathizes (hence, for example, his avowed support for Palestinian statehood and Israeli disengagement, in contradistinction to his friends and colleagues, Richard Perle and Douglas Feith). He is the embodiment of the fusion of Jacksonian and Wilsonian strands in American foreign policy tradition that best characterizes the Bush Administration's first term. (It's not an accident that Wolfowitz is the one that Christopher Hitchens likes best; Cheney and Rumsfeld by contrast, he has never entirely trusted.) In many ways, I admire him. And I'm convinced, against my longstanding political inclinations, that in certain fundamental ways he was dead wrong - not just about Iraq, but about the fundamentals, about how power works.
Iraq itself was clearly in part a personal drama for him as well as a matter of policy. Wolfowitz, after all, was there when America betrayed the Shiites who rose up against Saddam Hussein in 1991. He was Dick Cheney's deputy at the time, and I don't think he ever forgave himself for those events. I'm not saying that this was all that motivated him; he clearly still believes that the Iraqi bank-shot strategy (take out Saddam and empower the Shiites to put America on the side of liberation and even Islam, removing much of the rhetorical force of the jihadist message, and incidentally remove both our troops from and our dependency on Saudi Arabia, making us less beholden to their own interests which run largely counter to ours in the region) was a good bet. Whether it looks like a good bet in retrospect, I leave to the reader to decide. But I don't think the personal angle was irrelevant. It rarely is.
He'd make a great character for a novel. (Hmmm . . .) And it's an interesting, if periodically maddening interview.
Anyway, I'm enjoying the magazine.