Pakistan and Vietnam (VN Diary No. 20)

Isn’t it just time to quarantine Pakistan? Clearly, the country has not yet figured out what it wants to be and I don’t think the US can really have much effect on that process. Pakistan has the bomb, of course, which makes things more complicated — the world does not need a radical Islamic state armed with nuclear weapons — but I think the current meltdown actually offers the US an opportunity to take a hard look at reality. The Obama administration has shown a real willingness to make pragmatic policy decisions and perhaps they will take a good look at Pakistan and tell themselves the truth. I’m sitting in a hotel room in Hanoi Vietnam as I write this and I’m thinking how American history might have been different had Lyndon Johnson taken a cold-eyed look at the Indochina war and decided to step back. Barack Obama has an opportunity for making a clear-eyed judgment that the US cannot effectively intervene in Pakistan or Afghanistan; that the best we can do is set a fence around those who would do us injury. That fence can be both diplomatic and military — I am not a pacifist — but it must not involve the escalation of the number of American soldiers. The administration ought to let it be known that Pakistan must decide its own direction, but that if one light is turned on in a nuclear facility, it will be instantly destroyed. Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan must all be confronted with existential choices — their choices, not ours. Had the US taken such an existential position during Vietnam’s civil war — for that’s what it was until the US and the Soviets made it a proxy war — Vietnam would probably be a much more democratic place today. Had the US not backed French intervention in 1945, but instead had acceded to Ho Chi Minh’s pleas for a guarantee of Vietnamese sovereignty, Ho Chi Minh might never have turned to the Soviets, whom he distrusted even while admiring Lenin’s treatise on colonialism. If the US had not supported the French return to Indochina in 1945, the Vietnamese would have had to work out for themselves what their political destiny would be. I heard no less an authority than the old revolutionary and compatriot of Ho Chi Minh Huu Ngoc say just today in a lecture that had the French not been allowed back in — with the blessing of the US — that Vietnam would have taken a “capitalist,” Western route, that that was Ho Chi Minh’s preference. As it happens, I think there is a huge dose of revisionist history in that statement, but it is certain that things would not only have been different, but better, had Truman simply told the French to back off after World War II. Now the US needs to tell itself to back off, with the realization that there is literally nothing we can do to determine what sort of society the Pakistanis and the Afghans want to have. Morally it’s none of our business; practically, it’s a hopeless quagmire. All we can do is protect ourselves, which we ought to do vigorously, publicly, and transparently. The Vietnamese posed no threat to the US, except in out imaginations; the Afghans and the Pakistanis pose no threat, except in the case of the Pakistanis’ nuclear arsenal, which ought to stand under the constant threat of annihilation should it be activated.

The Old Populism

What with all the new populism going around, I’d just like to lay claim to a little of the old populism myself. To wit:

I don’t want your millions, Mister,
I don’t want your diamond ring.
All I want is the right to live, Mister,
Give me back my job again.

Now, I don’t want your Rolls-Royce, Mister,
I don’t want your pleasure yacht.
All I want’s just food for my babies,
Give to me my old job back.

We worked to build this country, Mister,
While you enjoyed a life of ease.
You’ve stolen all that we built, Mister,
Now our children starve and freeze.

So, I don’t want your millions, Mister,
I don’t want your diamond ring.
All I want is the right to live, Mister,
Give me back my job again.

Think me dumb if you wish, Mister,
Call me green, or blue, or red.
This one thing I sure know, Mister,
My hungry babies must be fed.

So, I don’t want your millions, Mister,
I don’t want your diamond ring.
All I want is the right to live, Mister,
Give me back my job again.

That one strikes a chord, what with the CEO of AIG urging his managers to give back half their bonuses — but only if they were more than a hundred grand.I just paid my taxes today and I realize, all things considered, I’m fairly well-off. My whole household income rounds out around the minimum bonus this guy Liddy thinks might be just a little excessive, under the circumstances, you understand. I actually got a bonus this year — for being at my job 20 years — it was in the mid three figures range, after taxes were withheld.

And here’s another one from the same file — pretty sure I learned them both from a Pete Seeger record when I was fifteen, listening secretly while my Republican fundamentalist parents were at work:

I’ve traveled round this country
From shore to shining shore
It really made me wonder
The things I heard and saw.

I saw the weary farmer
Plowing sod and loam
l heard the auction hammer
A knocking down his home

But the banks are made of marble
With a guard at every door
And the vaults are stuffed with silver
That the farmer sweated for

l saw the seaman standing
Idly by the shore
l heard the bosses saying
Got no work for you no more

But the banks are made of marble
With a guard at every door
And the vaults are stuffed with silver
That the seaman sweated for

I saw the weary miner
Scrubbing coal dust from his back
I heard his children cryin
Got no coal to heat the shack

But the banks are made of marble
With a guard at every door
And the vaults are stuffed with silver
That the miner sweated for

I’ve seen my brothers working
Throughout this mighty land
l prayed we’d get together
And together make a stand

Then we’d own those banks of marble
With a guard at every door
And we’d share those vaults of silver
That we have sweated for

Hmm . . . I guess we do own those banks now. I guess we’d better start living up to our progressive fantasies. Sentimantal? Maybe, but maybe we ought to try living up to our sentiments, too. That includes you, Mr. Obama.

In the Shit

I think the country is deeply, deeply in the shit. I agree with Theda Skocpol:

Obama is, sadly, much to blame for giving the Republicans so much leverage. He defined the challenge as biparitsanship not saving the U.S. economy. Right now, he has only one chance to re-set this deteriorating debate: He needs to give a major speech on the economy, explain to Americans what is happening and what must be done. People will, as of now, still listen to him — and what else is his political capital for?Speaking as a strong Obama supporter who put my energies and money into it, I am now very disillusioned with him. He spent the last two weeks empowering Republicans — including negotiating with them to get more into Senate and his administration and giving them virtual veto-power over his agenda — and also spending time on his personal cool-guy image (as in interview before the Super Bowl). The country is in danger and he ran for president to solve this crisis in a socially inclusionary way. He should be fighting on that front all the time with all his energies — and he certainly should give a major speech to help educate the public and shape the agenda. That is the least he can and should do. Only that will bypass the media-conserative dynamic that is now in charge.

Succinct

Succinct: A commenter at 538, Thomas Neyman, writes:

So this is bipartisanship: No one agrees on anything, but everyone is happy to play their role. Obama looks like he is reaching across the aisle. The Republican caucus, with few moderates left, fires up the base. And the Dems in Congress get to write their own bill without obstruction from the other side. Everybody wins. The only losers seem to be the American public, who are getting a too-small stimulus package that doesn’t put enough money in play soon enough.

I don’t know Mr. Neyman, nor do I even recall seeing his posts before; but he has a way with words, having distilled the current political moment into six crisp sentences.

Today

I am cautiously hopeful and optimistic about the Obama administration. It is a relief to have a thoughtful, curious, intelligent, well-spoken person at the head of the nation. And, like many, I am amazed that a country with our history of racism, has elected an African American president. That, alone, gives me considerable hope. From what I’ve been reading online, many people now have the sense that the government might again be relevant to their lives.  Eight years ago some people liked to talk about how George W. Bush was “the kind of guy you’d like to have a beer with.” I never saw it myself — the man has always struck me as a self-involved, spiteful, spoiled adolescent. Obama and his family, on the other hand, strike me as the sort of people I’d like to have in my neighborhood — ordinary folk with admirable character. And, today at least, the country has the feel of a neighborhood.