The Destruction of Memory

You can't claim to love your country and hate its government. That was a standard line back in the day -- long ago -- when I was a candidate for national office. It was an obvious response to the Murdoch-driven media attacks on "Washington." Since then, it is an established, and pretty boring, routine by most candidates of both parties, but especially on the right, to run against "Washington." That is, even when one's own party is running "Washington."

An off-shoot of this bizarre political tactic that involves seeking office in a government one opposes, was the pre-Tea Party movement for term limits. That lasted only as long as it took term limit candidates to get to Washington and find out that it wasn't such a bad place after all and begin to reject their own term limit pledges.

What the pro-term limiters began to realize was the pretty obvious truth that there is value in experience in government. But the constant churning of elected representatives pledged to "change things" in "Washington" devalues experience and produces a constantly changing panoply of legislators and administrators with little if any experience and no knowledge of history.

Take, for example, an arena I know something about: national security and intelligence. (My first job after law school was in the National Security division of the U.S. Department of Justice. That required top secret clearances, the first of many thereafter.) Foreign Affairs, the biblical publication of the foreign policy establishment, just produced four case studies of what really happened in the use of covert operations as an instrument of foreign policy in Iran, Chile, Congo, and Bangladesh decades ago. In each case we have been living with the unintended and destructive consequences of those ill-advised operations since then.

I am a strong supporter of President Obama as he tries to weave his way through the new world of the 21st century. But it would have helped him enormously to have served, as I did, in the Senate Select (Church) committee on intelligence oversight. He would have learned invaluable lessons about the follies and long-term consequences of covert operations, the limits on military force to rearrange history, the laws of unintended consequences, and the truth that nothing ever remains secret for long.

The same observation would have applied to President George W. Bush who, given that kind of experience, might have been less inclined to trust unquestioningly the concerted advice of a group of ideologues about the ease with which America could remake the entire Middle East by invading Iraq (using less than factual arguments about non-existent weapons of mass destruction.)

Foreign policy is being driven by two wings of interventionism: the human rights interventionists, largely Democratic, who wish to use military force to liberate oppressed people; and hegemonic interventionists, largely Republican, who wish to use military force to achieve political dominance in the Middle East, Asia, and elsewhere. The vast majority of Americans, however, are by nature cautious about sending troops and ships here and there willy-nilly. They are not isolationists. They are realists. They know the lessons of history more than right and left ideologues.

Reading Lawrence in Arabia provides invaluable lessons in the history of the Middle East and how late colonial ambitions and competition between Britain and France during and after World War I, a century ago, still returns to plague us. Sykes and Pico drew arbitrary national boundaries that forced tribal societies and theological enemies, Sunnis and Shia, into awkward nation-states that, soon after the British and French were forced to leave following World War II, required dictators, oligarchies, and new royal families to bring order by force. Now those arrangements are coming unglued and the region faces disintegration.

In the early 1950s, the Iranian people democratically elected a progressive prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, whom we, the United States, covertly overthrew because he nationalized Iran's British-controlled oil company. Anyone who denies that we are living with the consequences of that does not deserve to be taken seriously. Likewise, now we are reportedly trying to evict Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq because he has failed to govern in ways we approve. It is reliably reported that one of the candidates to replace him is Ahmad Chalabi, the neo-conservatives' candidate for prime minister when we marched on Baghdad. Nothing changes. And so it goes.

So, the churning of leadership in an effort to destabilize the government of the country we all claim to love has many consequences, not least of which is the loss of experience, the lessons of history, and any recollection of what failed in the past and is not likely to succeed now and in the future. By undermining our government, we are destroying our national memory.