THE DANGER OF TWENTIETH-CENTURY MEN
Smithsonian Magazine is always an excellent read. It doesn’t get much play in the blogosphere because the contents are usually as eclectic as the Smithsonian itself and are not as partisan as the usual online suspects that bloggers love to quote or fisk. But it came in the mail today and the article ” Presence of Mind: Man of the Century” on the 100th anniversary of The Education of Henry Adams immediately caught my eye.
Henry Adams 1838 -1918
Many readers of this blog have already read this classic work (or, if in college or grad school, it is probably on the bookpile) which is notable for its depth of introspectively minded, societal and historical commentary by a man who today would be called a” public intellectual” though Adams no doubt would have eschewed such a term. Henry Adams had a discerning eye in part, as the author Peter Hellman relates, because like his brother and fellow historian Brooks Adams, Henry Adams was a man out of his time:
“And even as the information age sweeps the world, Adams’ book remains a compelling self-portrait of a man trying to keep his feet as the ground shifts around him.
Henry Brooks Adams’ great-grandfather, John Adams, was the second president of the United States; his grandfather, John Quincy Adams, was the sixth; his father, Charles Francis Adams, was a congressman and U.S. minister to Great Britain during the Civil War. Education, which Adams wrote in the third person, begins its chronological march with the author’s privileged birth on Mount Vernon Street in Boston on February 16, 1838. But it also notes his feeling that his lineage conferred no head start “in the races of the coming century.”
But as the 20th century approached, Adams worried that, by inclination and education, he was better equipped to be a mid-19th-century man. Among his concerns were the 1905 Russo-Japanese War over Manchuria, rioting against the czar in St. Petersburg and whether Germany would align itself with Russia or Western Europe.
Wondrous, but still worrisome, were such new sources of energy as radio waves and radium (though his narrative goes through 1905, he does not mention Einstein’s publication that year of the theory of relativity). He was not religious, but technology made him devout. He pondered the “great hall of dynamos” at the Paris exhibition of 1900, where he felt the mighty machinery “as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross.”
The earth itself, he writes, “seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arms-length at some vertiginous speed and barely murmuring—scarcely humming an audible warning to stand a hair’s breadth further for respect of power—while it would not wake the baby lying against its frame. Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force.”
Adams had the self-awareness to sense his alienation with the major trends of his age, a quality that is lacking in most people who are disconnected from the flow of events. Adams, unlike his famous forbears, never sought high office though he was in the circle of those who did, including Henry Cabot Lodge, Alfred T. Mahan and Theodore Roosevelt, early partisans of of America as a world power. Unlike Adams, they were ahead of the curve on the approaching spirit of the times that would later be called ” the American Century“.
If only some our politicians, statesmen and foreign policy elite had some of Adams’ self-reflective humility today. Reading Foreign Affairs is often a depressing sojurn into the expositions of men who are anachronisms before their time, left behind by globalization and war in the prime of their careers and yet are unwilling to recognize that their comfortable old ideas provide few solutions to new problems. Dr. Barnett wrote the other day about the limitations of Scowcroft-think realism which was fitted to handle the delicate balance of nuclear terror in a bipolar Cold War but not messy 4GW insurgencies:
“The real problem with Rice is that she came from the Brent Scowcroft school of realism and national security advising. After Iran-Contra, the Brent Scowcroft school of national security advising came into vogue: the national security adviser and the NSC staff became super-apolitical. Instead of being the government-wide advocator of national security policy and an active player in its own right, the NSC and its boss became foreign policy super-clerk to the president, the main job being protecting POTUS’s ass from any blame.
This is essentially the Scowcroft model, and it reflected his realist take on things: no advocacy and no idealism from the NSC. It doesn’t lead, it merely coordinates.
That became the preferred mode post-Iran-Contra, and it survived the Bush 41 administration nicely, segueing into the emasculated NSC of the Clinton years, when the NEC (national economic council) was actually more powerful because Rubin at Treasury topped any of the unmemorables at Defense.
When Rice came in with George, the NSC embraced the Scowcroft “we’re-just-here-on-background” model. The staff I interacted with were all the same. I called them the “Joe Fridays.” They’d come, they’d take notes, and that was it. They had no ideology to speak of. They were responsible for nothing. They just coordinated.
We won in Iraq–the war, that is.
What we continue to lose in Iraq in the peace. That loss occurs primarily because we’re under-allied and under-coordinated interagency-wise. You place that blame on State and NSC. Rice ran NSC through the disastrous “lost year” following the invasion’s successful conclusion (when Saddam’s regime fell). Rice has been in charge of State for the last two years, during which our under-allied approach has proven quite isolating for us and quite invigorating for the insurgency and now sectarian warriors. “
The foreign policy elite that includes Rice, Scowcroft, Kissinger, Albright, Christopher, Holbrooke, Berger ad infinitum are upstanding, patriotic, deeply serious, often intelligent but at times, seem no more ready to tackle the realities of the 21st century than did Henry Adams at the close of the 19th. Not enough attention is being paid to fundamental shifts in military and economic power devolving downward from the hands of the state. Hamstrung by their own mistakes in Iraq, the Bush administration has regressed toward paralysis. The Democrats offer no alternatives except the non-solution of unilateral withdrawal. The refusal to make any strategic choices that might allow the U.S. to regain the initiative has set in, rejected in favor of papering over problems and muddling through, the default stance of the foreign policy elite since the Vietnam War.
We are being ruled by twentieth century men.