When I was a boy I imbibed my politics from my parents. I was the first born and my mother was only 23 when I was born, which was usual in those days, so I got the politics dose when they were still young, in their 20's and 30's. They had been lefties, not Party members I think, too independent for that, but close. So I learned from my mother directly – walking on 52nd street to the shoe store and finding a little picket line, she told me “Never cross a picket line.” Sounds like my sister Kathy, actually, as I say it now to myself – these things get transmitted. Also walking on 52nd street, I heard from her: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” (It's still hard to navigate the language here, isn't it? “His or her” is cumbersome, and “their” is ungrammatical. What to do? I think “their” will become grammatical. But I digress.) I also heard from my mother, “The land was desert under the Arabs; when the Jews came they made the desert bloom.” Ah, it seemed so easy.
As I got older it got more specific. I heard “Mossadegh” and “Arbenz” and the “Dulles brothers” and “McCarthy” and “United Fruit” and took it all to heart. Didn't hear anything about the CIA because it was too young to be notorious, I guess.
I think when my father said something, he had an air of thinking about it and weighing things, whereas my mother tended more to have shorter answers expressed as received wisdom as a guide to politics. I tended more toward my father's views, taking things only under advisement. My mother looked to him as the senior opinion, I think. She said of him, “He has this big brain.”
When we all got older and moved to Wynnewood on the Main Line in the 50's, when my parents got to their late 30's and 40's, their views moderated. I remember my father looking at the paper at dinner and saying, “That Texas Utilities stock just keeps going up!” His stake in society was changing. And one day an visiting English physician came to dinner and my Dad said, “What are your politics?” The guest said, “Well, I think both sides go a little too far,” or something like that. And my father preempted any further discussion by saying, “That's what I think, too.” I looked down at my plate, noting the change.
I explored more in college, noting the views of leftist friends, still holding my tending-Left positions in abeyance. I audited a course by Robert Paul Wolff, an avowed Marxist with a terrible facial tic, telling my friend Fred, “I really want to find out what my father was thinking.” I didn't take Kissinger's course on Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, which I now regret. I had to make hard choices on which courses to take, so I rationalized some of the choices, in this case thinking that there was something sinister about Kissinger. Instead, I took David Reisman's course on something about American society, liberal.
Now I'm a lot older, but I'm still trying to sort it all out, tell you the truth. I read and think. I like Kissinger's books; I like The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Sam Huntington. I note the ravages of aggressive American foreign policy and the ravages of the oil companies – worse that United Fruit – but at the same time I remember how wrong people were about the Soviet Union, and the real need to protect freedom, which is not just a myth.
“Freedom” is a very general word. I have thought for a long time now that to conservatives“freedom” means the free ability to ply the capitalist trade anywhere, as United Fruit and the oil companies did and do. To liberals “freedom” means democracy and human rights and good government; for some reason I think of Jimmy Carter as an exemplar. One word, two ideologies. Governmental agencies – CIA-State Department-DOD – waver between the two, but mostly incline toward capitalism as our national interest, probably.
Which brings us to this new book, a terrific and short one, by Sarah Chayes, the daughter of a renowned Harvard Law professor, my friend Michael reminds me – I thought that name seemed familiar. Her book is “Thieves of State.” It is short at 235 pages, which is a blessing, as it can then be concise and convincing without a lot of adumbrative claptrap. http://www.amazon.com/Thieves-State-Corruption-Threatens-Security/dp/0393239462/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1429548795&sr=1-1&keywords=thieves+of+state
Chayes' thesis is that failed states are not really failed states, they are countries captured and run by criminal associations. Their modus operandi is the shakedown at all levels. Therefore, the strategy of the United States – first to establish stability and only afterwards to root out corruption – does not and cannot work. Oppression is not a good strategy for the long term.
Chayes starts with Afghanistan, where she started out working for NPR and then left to work for an NGO headed by the older brother of one Hamid Karzai. She soon discovered that the Karzai's could easily have been directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the only problem being to decide who was Michael, who was Sonny, and who was Fredo. She literally watched the CIA hand over large bills to one of the brothers wrapped in aluminum foil. She did not witness the obtaining of a receipt.
The story in Afghanistan is not unexpected by anyone who has read even the basic books about the Bush Wars of Adventure that have left us in a generation-long hole to crawl out of. The incompetence of the US leadership is also not unexpected. The scale of both, however, is bowling-over unexpected. Just unnervingly corrupt, just unnervingly incompetent. It's enough to make one say, “Enough already! We're outa here,” no matter how convincing Kissinger (“World Order”) and Brent Stephens (“America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder”) may be on the need to remain involved because the world does need order. In the end I actually can't say we should be outa there, I think we need to help maintain order, but boy, we sure shouldn't do it this way.
Chayes' thesis to end corruption first is based on obtaining the good will of the people. They are the ones who are actually oppressed and extorted. Chayes cites four or five “mirror” would-be ruler advisers, the most familiar being Machiavelli, who have sought to bring reason to rulers through the ages. They all say the same thing, that you have to be basically fair to the people, responsible for them in rooting out the corruption of your subordinates, etc. If you don't act this way, they will revolt, and that the revolt will often be based on an extreme religious element, such as Martin Luther. Viewed this way, one comes to think of the Taliban and other Islamic movements as a typical reaction to official corruption.
So, if the ordinary citizens see the US in cahoots with their oppressors, how can order be established? All the wisdom is there for the reading, if anyone involved in these fiascos can read and reason, which is not a given. Instead, the military will opt for military means because it is hard to redirect them, for all the flexibility of intelligent leaders such as generals McKiernan and Petraeus, and Admiral Mike Mullen. (Chayes actually served on the staffs of McKiernan and Mullen.) The CIA will opt for cynical insolent secret deals with the cynical, sinister leaders and think themselves coldly realistic as they hand over the cash and don't tell the other parts of the US government what they are doing. The State Department will be its usual pusillanimous self. Eventually, getting outa there is often not voluntary.
Some little sidelights Chayes mentions made me think of another view of these terrible events and trends. Mubarek's son Gamal came back from his education in business in London and figured out how to corner more and more wealth in Egypt in new and modern ways. The gang in Russia was also clever in privatization. I think the top families in Angola and in Tunisia were also enlightened by Western business ideals. (Chayes points to the importance of families in kleptocratic enterprises, resisting somehow citing Sonny, Fredo, and Michael – I wouldn't have been able to restrain myself.) Is this why Boko Haram means “Western Education Is Forbidden?” B-schools teach no morality, just what works is good. The US sees no limits to inequality. There is only lip service to serving the general populace, making up the rationalization of trickle-down, saying that what you want to do is what ought to be done. Morality matters, and Western morality as conveyed by B-schools is a problem. It's capitalism as “freedom,” rather than civil rights and good government and free speech as “freedom.”
How does this happen? Hegel believed that ideals led to economic and political consequences. Marx famously turned Hegel on his head and asserted that economic relations to the means of production was the primary force in determining economic and political events. My stance (which the world is doubtless waiting for) is this: whatever. They're related, as the egg is to the chicken. When they form a self-reinforcing system, ideas and reality, the situation gets pretty ingrained. Where crime can happen, crime will happen.
So, here we are. It's nice to think of a Westphalian world where states respect each others' boundaries and internal politics, where legitimacy is respected inside and outside of the state. Unfortunately, with these kleptocratic states, that's not going to be possible. They will experience upheaval and threaten those around them and increasingly the rest of the globalized world. It's not a bad idea to try to help the states develop internal legitimacy and coherence. But to help them, the helpers need to understand both those states and the mirror-writers and history. There is little evidence that this is happening at anything like the scale we need.
It's a powerful argument in a short book. I think my father would have liked it, and my mother would have agreed. What will work is good government, and the ideology of freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear – all based on people and their needs and a legitimate government – not the freedom of rapaciousness the capitalists have brought us. Cynical realism is unrealistic.