Thursday, July 24, 2014

As the Dog Returneth to His Vomit...

Well, we're back in Iraq, and I, for one, couldn't be more relieved. I mean, the suspense was unbearable! Anybody with a grain of sense could have seen that even if we withdrew “all combat forces”, but left a square-mile embassy with thousands of employees, something was going to have to give sooner or later. (Actually, I'm not convinced we ever really left. Uniformed troops, maybe – but let's not forget the CIA and their mercenary army.) At any rate, now we send “military personnel” (not “combat troops”, mind) back to Iraq to protect all those American citizens, as well as “American interests” (whatever those might be), and to, as usual, act as “advisers and trainers” for the Iraqi army, which is... well, let's just say it's an army that we defeated and scattered to the four winds after the invasion, and then reconstructed in some way hoping that they would do some of the heavy lifting (AKA dying) when we started getting pushback from “terrorists”... i.e. people who were unhappy with our invasion and occupation and decided to do something about it. The newly re-formed Iraqi army was, of course, composed of the unemployed (thanks to our destroying Iraq's infrastructure) who were desperate for some source of income with which to keep themselves and their families fed, clothed, and sheltered. Problem is, people fighting for an idea have a tremendous advantage over people merely fighting for material gain – especially when the idea people are willing to use suicide tactics. So far from neutralizing Iraq as a source of Islamic aggression, we instead created a hotbed – a hatchery of sorts – for a new wave of Islamic fundamentalism and aggression. Well, it worked in Afghanistan, why not in Iraq?

Just kidding, of course. One more dollar tossed into that craphole is one dollar too many – to say nothing of American lives. And am I saying that American lives are worth more than Iraqi lives? Maybe, on some universal cosmic level, no – but in terms of foreign policy we have to operate on that basis, the same way Israel operates on the premise that Israeli lives are worth far more than Palestinian lives. This is, sadly, the way nations always operate in war time, and this mindset is, in a way, key to victory, just as it has always been in all wars down through history. Let's recall the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both premised on the notion that American lives were worth much more than Japanese (including civilian) ones. Sad, but true; this is how wars have always been fought, and in some sense it's the only way they can be fought – unless, of course, victory is not the goal, and when you look at our escapades in Southwest Asia you start to feel like maybe that's the case.

So yes, wars are not about internationalism, one-worldism, “kumbaya”, or anything else. On the most basic level, they're about killing (or at least disarming and neutralizing) people who aren't like us so that people who are like us (or who are us) can continue to enjoy their lifestyle. (I always wonder if we would ever have dropped an atomic bomb on Berlin, for example, even if the European war hadn't come to an end by that time. I think the answer is no, simply because the Germans, as mesmerized as they were by der Adolf, were still, basically, a lot like us, whereas the Japanese were “little yellow devils” who deserved no quarter, and no mercy. And yes, I'm talking about racism, which has a perfectly natural, if atavistic, role to play in war.)

So yeah, we're going back into Iraq because we have “interests” there. And because there are Americans in harm's way. But who put them in harm's way? And who on earth allowed anyone in this country to develop “interests” in Iraq that had to be defended? It's all a scam, basically – you send people into a war zone (or a place that's about to be), then declare them in danger, and send in troops to protect them, and then send in more troops to protect those troops, and before you know it we're right back where we started. It's a scam... but it works! It worked in Vietnam, it worked in Panama, and it's working in Iraq. It works everywhere it's tried; it's fool-proof. It is, in fact, one of the primary building blocks of empire. We don't just arbitrarily invade another country – we first establish “interests”... strategic necessities... we declare that country, and/or its leadership, to be a grave threat to humanity and especially to the survival of “the American way of life”. Or, when it comes to Southwest Asia, to Israel, which basically amounts to the same thing. Then you throw a few other ingredients into the pot, like “weapons of mass destruction”, “human rights violations”, “fascism” (a perennial favorite), “theocracy” (bad, bad), and you have all the evidence you need to mount a full-scale attack.

But if that's the basic, tried-and-true strategy, where does Obama stand? Well, first, he's just following orders. But imagine his frustration. He ran for president with an idea -- “hope and change” -- which, for him, meant turning the U.S. into a people's republic, or at least a socialist Utopia. In other words, it was all about domestic policy. Somewhere along the line, not unlike Bill Clinton, he forgot (or never learned) that there is also this thing called foreign policy – and it's messy, chaotic, thankless, and, in our time, not based on much more than the agonized writhing of a dying empire.

He didn't ask for this; he didn't want it. But it was dumped into his lap, along with marching orders from the usual suspects – Wall Street, the international banking/financial cartel, the neocons (yes, still very influential, even in an administration they pretend to despise), the Evangelicals (ditto), Israel, the countless racial, ethnic, and victim-group lobbies, and, I'm sure, any number of others. So he races around like Lucille Ball in one of her classic sitcoms, trying to do everything at once and please everybody, and gets very little thanks and a lot of criticism, and... well, what's a community organizer from Chicago supposed to do? So he, basically, checks out. He doesn't know anything, he didn't know anything, and it was all (still, after 5 ½ years) someone else's fault.

Now, don't get me wrong – this is not an expression of sympathy. He wanted this job, and he got it, and now he's paying the price. And I guess this could be said of all presidents, although a few manage to come out on top in spite of it all. But in the array of what I'll call “victim presidents”, Obama certainly is in the top rank, along with other sorry specimens like Carter and Bush II. What distinguishes victim presidents is that they start out behind the power curve, never catch up, and only manage to make things worse. And one could say, well, they were only victims of history – but there were still plenty of opportunities to do better, and the fact that they all failed shows a certain... what? Level of hubris? Plain stupidity? Spite? More like all three, and more. The other distinguishing trait is that they never show any insight. They are absolutely blind to not only their own failings and the impact it has on the country, but they continue to defend their record, and their “legacy”, where someone with more insight (or at least shame) would retire to the farthest reaches of the country and never raise their voice in public again. (At least Bush II deserves a bit of credit for shutting the hell up most of the time, unlike his former cronies.)

But having said that, it's nonetheless true that the cards are stacked against The Anointed One. He's faced, on a daily basis, with a myriad of intractable problems – dilemmas that simply can't be solved by any mortal, because they are the products of years – decades – centuries, even – of folly and delusion. It's no wonder he runs off and plays golf on a regular basis; I would too. He is, as I've said, a face in a suit, basically... not his own man... and yet he must feel the sting of this situation now and then. At least in Chicago he had a willing audience and could talk himself into thinking he was accomplishing something; now it's just one debacle after another, with no end in sight. So he's turning gray... getting more glum by the day... and whatever happened to that dazzling “hope and change” smile? He looks, acts, and talks like a defeated man – and he is, basically, no matter how many pathetic “victories” he manages to eke out through executive orders. Now it seems he's buying a house in California. Why not Chicago? Doesn't he want to return to his roots, a home town hero? Don't ask...

Here's the point. When you're the leader, or even the figurehead, of a nation that is on the way up in the world, you never have a bad day. You go from victory to victory, and even failures can be, somehow, recast as “strategic” victories. And you get credit – most of it undeserved, but nonetheless sufficient to have your name cut into countless blocks of stone around the Mall in Washington, and, with any luck, to have your likeness rendered in stone, or on coins or (worthless) paper money. You become, in short, part of the American Pantheon. On the other hand, when you're the leader, or figurehead, of a dying empire, you never have a good day. Even events which might have been considered victories in better times turn out to be fatally flawed... all the idols have feet of clay... and rust and corruption are everywhere. And again, it's not necessarily to your discredit (Obama isn't entirely wrong in continuing to blame everything on Bush) but try telling the populace that – or the media, or (dread!) the historians. They will ignore what small, pathetic victories and achievements you might have managed to pull out of the mire, and you'll be known forever after as “the president who...” (did something really bad, or allowed something really bad to happen).

And yet, such is the typical politician's genius for denial and delusion that most of them never come to terms with their true record. Oh, maybe on some surface level they wish things had gone better, but to gaze out over the bottomless chasm of failure... this is too much to ask. So Carter, for example, remains delusional in thinking he has something to offer, even though his administration was an exercise in farce and folly... Bush II continues to live in a fantasy world... and Obama? It's only a question of what grotesque form his delusions take as he fades into obscurity (or, worse yet, doesn't).

Of course, he does have 2 ½ more years. He could repent. He could wander over to the National Archives and take a good, hard look at the Constitution. He could grant Congress the respect it doesn't deserve but nonetheless ought to have. He could quit being a thug. But what are the chances?

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Citizen Scaife

The countless obituaries, tributes, and encomiums that have appeared following the recent demise of Richard Mellon Scaife, publisher of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and all-around philanthropist, typically call attention to his support of the Republican Party and his conservative political views, although Scaife apparently considered himself more of a libertarian than a conservative in the usual sense. But at the same time, he is presented as having been a firm advocate of what is called a “strong defense” and a “vigorous” or “muscular” foreign policy – what some of us would call empire building. Now, the question that no one seems to want to deal with – mainly because no one even considers it an issue – is in what way neocon-style foreign policy is, or can be made, compatible with libertarianism. Libertarianism is, of course, a general concept and reflects a certain view of government, and thus, one would think, of both domestic and foreign policy. In other words, it has a theoretical base, and is not just a passing fad or an expression of mindless selfishness (as it is typically accused of being by the liberals and the mainstream media). So the question of compatibility has to be expressed in terms of ideas and concepts, and not just specific policies (or, obviously, specific political parties, government programs, and politicians).

Libertarianism, to cut to the chase, is the idea that we would all be better off if we left each other the hell alone, and if government left us alone. So the libertarian concept of government is minimalistic, but not anarchistic, that being an entirely different position, although (as usual) often confused, by the usual suspects, with libertarianism. (And I guess if you're committed to totalitarianism, even of the “soft” variety, libertarianism and anarchy are going to look about the same.) And although America in its early days may not have been explicitly founded on libertarian principles, the practical consequences of the ideas it was founded on produced a society which libertarians can only dream of in our time. And it's not that there weren't plenty of bumps in the road, but I would be willing to claim that America was, for all intents and purposes, a libertarian society up to the Progressive Era, when all of a sudden it was deemed desirable for the government to redistribute income and wealth – I.e. to take money out of Person A's pocket (or keep it from ever getting there) and put it into Person B's pocket. This was, if one studies the matter, always a fear among political thinkers even from the founding, and was considered a potential weak spot or Achilles heel in the American system – a fear which has been more than borne out in our time.

Progressivism, as originally conceived, was the notion that government had to fill in where voluntary charity had failed. And it wasn't as if charity did not exist in the old days; it did, and much of it was based on religious ideas and sponsored by religious bodies. But there were gaps, and yes, people did “fall through the cracks” on a regular basis. So, for good or ill, we embarked on an extra-Constitutional program which continues to this day – first providing a “safety net” to keep people from becoming homeless, or from starving, or from being poisoned by other people. And yet this was apparently not enough, because the time came when we needed the New Deal... and then the Fair Deal... and then the Great Society... and Equal Opportunity... and Affirmative Action... and “hate crime” laws... and now Obamacare. And the struggle is far from over. It has gotten to the point now, as in Russia under the Bolsheviks, where if your neighbor has one more goat than you have, he's immediately branded a capitalist, landlord, exploiter, racist, homophobe, sexist, what have you. So the collectivist, totalitarian ideal is alive and well, even though it had comparatively modest beginnings over 100 years ago.

But that's all about ideas. How about implementation? The great and mighty hammer that the Progressives came up with was the graduated income tax, which is, sadly, still with us. But it was supplemented by a mountain of other laws and regulations, and an army of bureaucrats and enforcers on all levels. All in the name of charity and compassion, mind you – and you can decide whether money extracted at gunpoint has anything to do with charity or compassion; my answer is that it doesn't. But even here there is a point to be made. The premise is that human beings, including Americans, lack sufficient charity and compassion to care about, or care for, the “underprivileged” among us, and this is why government has to step in and bridge the gap – although I have yet to perceive any trace of charity or compassion in government. It is a thing, not a person, after all – despite propaganda like “The Grapes of Wrath”.

Oh, but government is just an instrument – a means to a just end – you'll say. OK then, maybe the charity and compassion lie with those in charge of the government – with politicians and bureaucrats. Tilt! Oh, but maybe they, even given their manifold faults, are only acting on behalf of a charitable and compassionate electorate. But if that's so, why doesn't said electorate exercise charity and compassion in a direct manner, rather than hiring others to make and enforce laws that, once again, are designed to achieve the desired result at the point of a gun? Well, it's because, in the aggregate, people are more likely to want be on the receiving end rather than the giving end – to be takers or tax receivers rather than givers and tax payers. Even on an individual basis, my bet is that most people would prefer to give a little and get a lot – which means that the individual's place in the social order has degenerated to that of a gambler in a casino, betting that his input will be more than compensated by the casino's output. And yet casinos continue to make money, and government continues to become larger, more intrusive, and more oppressive, and its operatives become more prosperous and more numerous. Thus we see the effects of a great fallacy.

And this is just fallen human nature at work. So maybe the Progressives had a point. Maybe society really is a social compact, and if we want to be members in good standing we have to be willing to make sacrifices. The problem is that, eventually, the number of people on the take exceeds the number on the give – as is happening in our time. So the government, which is supposed to right all wrongs and make all the crooked paths straight, winds up with a cash-flow problem, and we have a national debt that can never be paid off, and so on. A related issue is that our definition of “poverty” -- i.e. what constitutes being needy – has degenerated to the point where our “poor” have a higher standard of living than most of the rest of the world – and yet there are still demands for more. More social justice, more reparations, more affirmative action, more preferences, etc. etc. And these demands can never be satisfied; this is the point. We could adopt a system of radical collectivism like China under Mao or Cambodia under Pol Pot, and it still wouldn't help. The best one could hope for would be equal misery for all... and yet that is precisely what many of our liberal, AKA “progressive”, politicians seem to be aiming for. (And please note, those systems still include a wealthy power elite, but that's OK since they're the people with all the great humanistic, Utopian ideas so they deserve to get to the head of the line.)

While Mr. Scaife might have agreed with some of the above – maybe even for the right reasons – the idea that this necessitated supporting the Republican Party can be termed delusional at best. The Republicans have had nothing to do with libertarianism since... oh, I would say the days of Robert Taft, although the Goldwater campaign provided some faint echoes, as did the Reagan administration. But the state of things in our time is best reflected in the fact that the libertarians got bodily ejected from the 2012 Republican convention. The Republicans find the libertarians annoying... disturbing... and downright terrifying, and I suspect it's largely because the libertarians make the Republicans feel guilty – that they have sold their birthright for a mess of pottage.

So here you have the first contradiction -- but that's only on the domestic side. The main point is how one reconciles libertarianism, even the kind that is willing to appear under the Republican banner, with neocon-style, empire-building foreign policy. Some possibilities:

  1. Libertarianism for us, to hell with everyone else.  Another way of putting it is this:  Is "libertarian foreign policy" a contradiction in terms?  This position may be economically arguable, but it's politically (not to mention diplomatically) suspect and morally bankrupt. One could call it cynical. And yet it's not that uncommon a point of view. Is it because we believe that only Americans are fit for, and deserving of, liberty and that all others are invincibly ignorant and doomed to exist in hopeless squalor and perpetual night? Well... when one has a look at things that are going on in Africa and parts of the Islamic world, it would be tempting to come to that conclusion. But surely we haven't given up on at least setting an example... or have we? Can we be at once optimistic about our own future and despairing about the rest of the world? Or to put it another way, are we willing to leave them alone out of charity, or because we've given up on them?

    The practical consequences of this position are, basically, isolation combined with a strong defense – by which I mean real defense... defense of our borders, and nothing more. At least this would have the conceptual advantage of eliminating the bogus concept of “terrorism” -- there would only be us and them, and if they hate us we don't especially care why (vs. the obsessing that followed the events of 9/11). Job One of defense is to keep them from killing us and taking our stuff; we don't care about their motives. This would at least be a clean and uncluttered position. But it was not Mr. Scaife's.

  2. Libertarianism for us, and spread the blessings abroad. This is close to being the core of the stated neocon position, as represented by the Republican Party, “talk radio”, and – yes – the “Tea Party”. Liberty is good for us, and it would be good for the rest of the world as well, if only they could be convinced. And it's not enough for us to just set an example, we have to jam it down their throats by, first, invading, then taking over their governments, installing our stooges as “leaders”, and hitting them with (after the drones have done their thing) a barrage of propaganda, social workers, etc. Call it “tough love” on an international scale. This was standard operating procedure in Iraq as it is in Afghanistan... and the question is not how well it works, because it doesn't. The question is, was this actually our intent? And my position is that it wasn't, no matter how many purple thumbs come filing out of polling stations in the middle of the desert. We insist on some trappings of democracy in order to validate our actions to the international community (on those rare occasions when we care what they think), but the real agenda is otherwise. It's about conquest for its own sake, number one... and economics, and neutralizing threats to Israel, and... well, that's about it, actually. It's about making some people very rich, increasing the power and scope of government (domestically, note), and producing “war presidents” (and every boy born in a log cabin wants to be one of those, right?). It's not even about gaining military victories; just ask anyone in the military (OK, ask the honest ones who haven't been brainwashed). Wars in our time are notoriously victory-proof, and intentionally so, I might add. No one ever got rich from a “cakewalk”; what produces fortunes is a long, drawn-out conflict with no end, no exit criteria, no nothing – preferably not even a “war”, because people still have this funny, old-fashioned idea that wars ought to result in victory – in winners and losers. 
    So was this Mr. Scaife's position – i.e. the naïve, as opposed to cynical, version? Very possibly. But the inherent contradiction there is that to fight perpetual wars – for any reason – you have to have big government. No... massive government, with oppressive taxes, ever-vigilant intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and a dictatorial regime. Empire building abroad and liberty at home? Doesn't work, can't work, never has, never will. This is the greatest misunderstanding on the part of so many self-styled conservatives and, I suspect, some libertarians as well. Libertarianism is compatible with defense; it requires it, in fact. But it is totally incompatible with empire-building and perpetual war. This is not true, of course, for mainstream conservatism and/or neoconservatism... and maybe Mr. Scaife was just confused about his terminology. 

  3. Libertarianism for us and gentle persuasion for everyone else. This is the least likely alternative, yet the only one with any moral validity. The “shining city on the hill” has lost a lot of its glimmer since the founding, and we are now in the position of being seen as just another bullying empire throwing its weight around. We had ideas once; now all we have are drones. Were those ideas valid? (And if so, why are they now discarded?) Or was it all just a grand illusion? Democracy, as flawed as it is (or as we've made it), is certainly not the worst system ever devised... nor is the Constitution the worst founding document ever written. The mistake we've made as a society is in assuming that ideas were enough – that we could just coast along, decade after decade, propelled by some sort of magical holy writ that would render us not only morally superior but, in some sense, invincible for perpetuity. But it seems that ideas can only survive as long as the kind of society that gave rise to those ideas survives. Otherwise they will wither in the glare of human greed, folly, and downright evil, as happened in the case of Rome and seems to be happening here as well. If ideas are the soil and society the plant, and liberty the fruit, how long will the plant survive once pulled up by the roots, and how much more fruit will the plant produce after the fruit it did produce is consumed (or rots)? 

    Another way of saying this is to ask, do we still have anything to offer the world (assuming we did at one time)... other than (as the Vietnam protesters used to say) “bombs, bullets, and bullshit”? Maybe not! But I'm not totally convinced, and I don't think that libertarianism is a political dead letter, even in our time... but it may take many more catastrophes before people come to see its value. And if that day ever comes, could the Constitution be, once again, established as the basis for a political system – with changes, as needed, to eliminate the inherent contradictions? And could we not then, in a spirit of true humanism (vs. the kind opposed to religion and thus to true morality) and, yes, charity and compassion, at the very least show other societies a better way? And I'm not talking about political systems here – not about “democracy” or purple thumbs, or parliaments, or anything else. Any society will be benign and of benefit to its members if the leaders are thoughtful and moral (think “natural law” at the very least), and any society, regardless of structural details, will become oppressive and evil if its leaders are drunk on power and concerned only with their own glory. This seems like a simple enough lesson... but we can't teach it by force, and we can't teach it unless we are willing to set an example, which in the present day we apparently are not. 

    And another aspect of this renewal, should it ever come, would be as follows: Stop thinking of other societies and systems as, somehow, “undeveloped”, primitive, or retarded, just because they don't care to do things our way. And especially, don't constantly present religion (of any sort) as a barrier to “progress” (as we invariably do in foreign relations, and as we are now busy doing here). “What profiteth a man if he gain the world but lose his soul?” If even this simple question were made fundamental to our government and laws – and our foreign policy – a new day might truly dawn.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

NATO Blinks

One of my favorite pastimes when it comes to the “news” is reading between the lines. Any story – especially when it comes to foreign affairs – has a top layer, i.e. the story they are hoping the gullible public will take away and not ask any embarrassing questions. But they can't totally suppress the full significance of the story; in other words, if they just killed it outright it would leak out anyway (thanks to the Internet, “talk radio”, etc.) and thus arouse suspicions. So they present a harmless and non-threatening bit of pap, hoping that will satisfy – and they're right, by and large. It's the old familiar news cycle – you announce a “crisis” but before people start to panic you proceed to announce that everything is under control, more or less – that our betters in Washington, or wherever, are discussing the matter, and are working hard, and that there's no need for alarm. “Concern”, yes – alarm no, and panic, certainly not... just enough uncertainty to cause us to run, once again, and hide behind the flowing, copious skirts of the government.

One thing we tend to forget is that “freedom of the press” also includes the freedom to edit and manipulate, and process actual events through a conceptual sieve so that only the stuff the Regime deems “fit to print” is openly revealed. It's a much more subtle process than outright censorship – and to give credit where credit is due, the “public” has become a bit more sophisticated over time, and not quite so willing as it was in the old days (say, the 1950s) to take what the media put out as the whole truth and nothing but. This is what makes the game fun – you read (or hear, or see) what they want you to read, but if you dig down a layer or two you're much more likely to figure out what is really going on. This is especially true if we're willing to question the assumptions that always lie behind any news story – which is to say, the unstated premises that we are expected to accept without question, and without even knowing that we're accepting them.

Of course, each of us has to choose his level of focus, and hard-core “conspiracy theorists” assume that there is no truth whatsoever in anything the media (or their political masters) have to say – that it's all propaganda, in other words. And they may be right! We may all be living within the Matrix, and may all be totally deceived at all times. The top few layers of any story may be entirely lies and fabrications, and the truth may be in the trembling hands of a few lonely fanatics. (I think this is actually the case, for example, when it comes to JFK, and 9-11, and pretty much anything that happened during the Clinton administration.) The problem for the media is that, beyond a certain point, the party line defies all credibility, so they feel they have to provide a watered-down version that might accidentally contain some nuggets of truth, as a kind of anchor to reality. Otherwise, it starts to sound like total fiction and is perceived as such by an uncomfortably large minority – as, once again, happened with 9-11, but also with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. When government actions have “scam” and “hoax” written all over them, it's hard for even the most sincere-looking and -sounding news anchor to make them seem well-intended. It's a delicate balance – way more delicate than the one the Soviet media had to maintain, where dissenting voices were pretty much blacked out. The illusion of a “free press” depends on a meticulous sampling process, where a few things that we know (or believe) to be the case are mixed in, in order to lend credibility to the whole.

And so it is with the latest news out of NATO. You remember NATO, right? Also known as “the U.S. and a bunch of other guys”. This otherwise-boring organization was supposedly the bulwark between the West (read: freedom, democracy, prosperity, etc.) and the Evil Empire (read: slavery, dictatorship, poverty, etc.) -- and when the Evil Empire collapsed of its own weight... well, NATO should have voluntarily disbanded, right? But of course that's not how things work, because international bureaucracies, just like domestic ones, acquire a life of their own, and like the most aggressive parasite or tumor exert every effort to expand without limit and insure their survival – and one of the most favored means of doing so is what is called “mission creep”. NATO quickly acquired a new mission, which was to absorb as many as possible of the Soviet subject states – the Warsaw Pact first, and then the former Soviet republics... right up to the gates of Moscow, if possible. Thus, we had the “color revolutions”, and there were so many that we started running out of colors. (I understand that the next one in line was going to be plaid.) The premise, of course, was that, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia was going to be left a rusted hulk, dead in the water and totally helpless. Never mind all this talk of “hegemony” and “spheres of influence” -- we won, dammit, and to the victor go the spoils, etc.

Well, this was to, as usual, underestimate the stamina and rootedness of the Russians, and of their post-Soviet administration, all of whom were trained under the Soviet system. Please remember that the Soviet Republic did not undergo a revolution – of any color. They simply saw the handwriting on the wall, decided to cut their losses, and voluntarily retreated back into homeland mode. They did not give up on the idea of spheres of influence, and they certainly didn't write off all of the ethnic Russians spread far and wide (as a matter of policy) throughout the former empire. The dream was to get them back one way or another, the same way that Hitler's dream was to unite all Germans, no matter how dispersed, into a mighty empire.

Thus, the background – in the broadest terms – for much that has happened since, in 20-plus years. Russia did not disappear, and it would have been foolish to expect it to. But they became, let's say, a bit more realistic than they might have been at the height of the Soviet era, when it came to questions of their military strength, economic power, political influence, etc. They became more subtle... more nuanced... less ham-handed. We, on the other hand, were determined to finish the job, and with nostrils flaring proceeded to bring the former Warsaw Pact countries and Soviet republics into our own sphere of influence – primarily through economic incentives. And the source of those incentives was, of course, the European Union, which had already turned Western Europe into a kind of gray, murky stew run by bureaucrats in Brussels – an empire in its own right, where old-fashioned notions of religion, ethnicity, tradition, and economic (including fiscal and monetary) independence were unwelcome. And most of Europe bowed its collective head and shuffled into the deracinating machine, which pleased the nerds in Brussels immensely. Even the various economic meltdowns of the less-disciplined countries (the “PIIGS”) were welcome, since that rendered them debtors and second-class citizens who had no choice but to submit to Germany.

And thus a new German – oops, I mean European – empire was born. Finally, Europeans were brought to heel and protected from their own follies. And we in the U.S. were all for it. But then a funny thing started to emerge – the reality that, even though we had at one time rescued Western Europe from Hitler and turned Eastern Europe over to Stalin, the Europeans were now running the show. The international financial cartel and the banks were either headquartered in Europe or taking orders from Europe – and that included our own hallowed Wall Street as well as our government. So rather than being the most ripped dude on Muscle Beach, we found ourselves more in the role of a slightly retarded servant, with the shots being called in Brussels, Zürich, and other power enclaves in the Old Country.

Are they smart, or are we stupid? I think it's a bit of both. For all of its follies of the past, Europe is, nonetheless, the seat of economic, political, and social wisdom (by current standards) – compared to which we are still acting like newbies – naive, impulsive, prey to delusion and folly. They know they can pull our chain any time they want to – and they do, with great relish but also with the subtlety and elegance which we lack. Think of it in historical terms. In the long run, the small and smart always wind up dominating the big and stupid; this is the way of the world. It's downright Darwinian in its significance and its implications. And in our time, when information (in the broadest sense) is more important than ever, the people who are masters at manipulating information will inevitably dominate – and the people who prefer to use their fists will inevitably become servants.

But as I already tried to imply, as smart as the E.U./NATO types are, they might have gotten a bit too excited when it comes to bringing all of Europe up to the Urals under their spell. And what they are running into with Russia is all of the old bogeymen – those atavistic, terrible habits that were supposed to have long since wound up on the ash heap of history – namely race, ethnicity, religion, language, and tradition. Call it by any number of parallels – rootless cosmopolitanism vs. loyalty to place... sterility vs. vigor... anemia vs. full-bloodedness... and so on. Russia is a blast from the past, and it's parked right on the eastern end of a Europe that was supposed to be run by faceless bureaucrats and be perfectly happy about it.

Now where do we (the U.S.) come in? As I said, the tables have been turned, in a very subtle way when no one was looking. We were in charge of NATO... we were the saviors of Western Europe... and the E.U. was supposed to follow our orders, um, “suggestions” when it came to any major issues of politics or economics or social policy. But all of a sudden it seems more like we're taking orders from them. And one consequence of all of this is the (to us) jaded, cynical, decadent European way of doing things has crept into outfits like NATO. To put it in a nutshell, Sarah Palin was ready to go to war with Russia over Georgia (in order to “keep America free” -- how that was supposed to work is anybody's guess)... and now NATO has announced that they are no longer interested in “expansion”, at least until further notice. Which means... what? No more color (or plaid) revolutions? Hands off Georgia. And they're hesitating about the Balkans as well. So it looks as if the “sphere of influence” idea is alive and well... and let's admit, the term has no meaning if there's only one sphere.

I'd like to think this wasn't just about Putin scowling at them from his office high atop the Kremlin. I'd like to think it was the realization that the E.U. has become unwieldy as it is, and that the pushback from some of its less cooperative members has confirmed that impression. And I'd also like to think that the E.U. has been less enthusiastic than we are when it comes to applying the spoils system to Eastern Europe. Does this mean they're more realistic than we are? Let's just say that provoking a major conflict is a lot easier when you're an ocean away from said major conflict. European wars have a funny way of happening in Europe – which is why we prefer them to, say, a war on our own soil. We're perfectly happy being provocateurs, cheerleaders, and arms merchants when citizens of other countries are getting killed or otherwise inconvenienced... and so we tend to get indignant when they start having second thoughts. Plus, as I've said, they are, in many ways, much more in charge now than we are. So they will, more and more often, leave us sputtering and fuming over here while they get on with the daily tasks of keeping themselves in one piece... or in many pieces, but with (relative) peace.