I have had to listen to the presidential and vice presidential debates and comment on them, often enough in real time, as part of my job, but sometimes it feels as if it’s a form of penance for my sins. To keep this as understated as possible, these are not outstanding people. They are seeking to occupy (or be a heartbeat away from) an office that for the past seven-plus years has been held by a not unintelligent but certainly uninquisitive man who, with that special kind of arrogance born of unapologetic ignorance and a fixation on a few dubious verities, has plunged the country into a disastrous war and now into an eminently avoidable financial crisis that almost all the politicians and talking heads have diagnosed incorrectly.
Can there be much doubt that this is an empire in steep decline? People of real quality not only do not gravitate toward political leadership, they scurry away from it.
At a certain level we might view this decline in the quality of candidates offered by the major parties as good news. We’re not looking at leaders who are likely to be able to make the hardheaded and cold-blooded calculations that would be consistent with maintaining the kind of imperial dominance they seem to envision lasting forever. The sooner this country gives up its dreams of world-bestriding dominance spun as benevolent concern for spreading the blessings of democracy, or at least its surface manifestations, of course the better off those of us still blessed to live here will be.
However, there is little evidence that these leaders have given up their imperial fantasies. And while Adam Smith tried to reassure us that there is a great deal of ruin in a country, and much of what is good about the United States will no doubt survive and perhaps reemerge with more strength during our imperial decline, it looks as if we will have to suffer a great deal more before finally giving up or being forced to give up our leaders’ foolish dreams of universal rule.
One piece of evidence that we are in decline is the fact that the only candidate of the four offered by the major parties to be chief executive or executive-in-waiting with an iota of executive experience is Sarah Palin. Her executive experience is strictly limited, of course mayor of a small town and governor of a state with about a quarter of the population of the county in which I work. And while she does have at least that experience, it is tainted by a partisan and old-friends-friendly approach to wielding such power. And of course, while she demonstrated in the recent debate more facility at speaking in complete sentences and discussing facts that have been crammed into her head than many observers anticipated, her understanding of foreign affairs, the most important brief of the chief executive in the American system, is almost laughably lacking.
I don’t doubt that she has a certain level of native intelligence, and she certainly has some shrewd political instincts and an ability to "connect" with certain classes of voters at a visceral level. And she is able to project a certain confidence, but it is confidence born of less-than-partial knowledge that she doesn’t even recognize as partial. We can’t flinch? What about avoiding situations in which the only choice is to flinch or court disaster? And what does it say about the cultural level of an empire that otherwise reasonably intelligent people make the argument that what we really need in a position of high authority is a "hockey mom"? There are certainly reasons to doubt the wisdom of the purported elites who have led this country to the brink of bankruptcy and defeat, but this is close to denigrating even a scintilla of accomplishment and thoughtfulness, let alone the concept of relevant qualifications.
Then there’s the ultimate timeserver, Joe Biden, who was for the war (though perhaps with naïve qualifications and a willful blindness to the true implications of the Authorization for Use of Military Force resolution, which everybody knew really meant what it said rather than being a prelude to peace) before he was against it. To be sure, by virtue of having been in Washington forever he knows more about policy than the less-than-divine Sara, but he sees it through an unabashedly partisan lens. When unwarranted aggression was conducted by a Democratic president, he was all for it, thought it was wise and just, but naked aggression by a Republican president is always bad.
The distaste for Republican adventurism, however, is accompanied by a general enthusiasm for almost any kind of intervention in the wider world. When poor Gwen Ifill clumsily tried to ask him if there was any intervention that he would not support, aside from a few boilerplate qualifications, he couldn’t or wouldn’t name any. As for knowing the particulars that might guide one to make a judgment as to whether a particular intervention would be practical or not (aside from the party occupying the White House), there was that bizarre statement about the Americans and French kicking Hezbollah out of Lebanon leading to the 2006 Hezbollah-Israeli war. From what planet did that emanate?
He certainly knows more than Sarah Palin, but he still knows considerably less than he thinks he does, which can be more dangerous than the gaffes that his overconfidence in knowledge without checking leads to.
As for John McCain, little needs to be said beyond the near-certainty that he considers war not just a way to solve problems, but an ennobling endeavor, which is not surprising, given that he comes from a family of warriors, and most people have to find ways to rationalize and justify what they do. He has tried to suggest, by speaking (not entirely accurately) of his skepticism about keeping Marines in Lebanon way back during the Reagan administration, that he isn’t a knee-jerk interventionist, but there is pretty good evidence that his attitudes underwent a sea-change during the 1990s (perhaps after he was mildly instrumental in achieving the first steps toward normalization of relations with Vietnam, which may have been something of a psychological catharsis for a man who tends to see issues big and small in an intensely personal way) in the direction of bellicosity.
Dear, sweet Sarah says John McCain knows how to win a war. There is scant evidence of that. He has never been in a high military command position during wartime, let alone in a position that demanded a grasp of grand strategy. It is hardly to denigrate his genuine courage and personal determination during his POW experience to suggest that being a prisoner has little or nothing to do with knowing how to win a war. He did urge the surge, but he tends to credit the surge solely for the reduction in violence in Iraq, when everybody knows that the Anbar Awakening, which preceded the surge, was almost certainly more significant to say nothing of the de facto segregation of Baghdad with massive walls and the decision by the Iranians, for reasons of their own, to rein in Moqtada al-Sadr’s forces. I don’t know if McCain understands the significance of those other developments, some related and some unrelated to the surge, but his consistent failure to acknowledge them doesn’t indicate a brilliant strategic mind. Not to mention that he doesn’t seem to have the knowledge or imagination to consider that stateless terrorism can and should perhaps even must be approached by methods other than straightforward military action.
As for Barack Obama, while he did have the judgment to oppose the war in Iraq before it was undertaken and based on his speeches at the time actually had some good reasons for it he seems to suffer from the delusion that you can’t simply be against war and adventurism in this country, but that if you’re against one war you have to demonstrate that you’re still a macho dude by plumping for war in some other theater. Thus he promises deeper involvement in Afghanistan, which has not only long been the graveyard of empires, but is bigger than Iraq, with more difficult terrain, much trickier ethnic/tribal complications, and no history of having been a viable nation-state in the modern sense (even one enforced through brutal repression, as in Saddam’s Iraq) or of wanting to become one.
A final bit of evidence of imperial decline. All these distinctly mediocre people are surrounded by courtiers and enablers, not only in their own entourages but in the media and the academy. Thus a panoply of conservatives argue that the ability to string together a few complete sentences after having stumbled in one-on-one interviews is evidence of magnificent leadership qualities. On the other side, the ability to deliver modestly inspirational speeches that upon analysis are more characterized by vaporous platitudes than anything remotely resembling concrete ideas about how to achieve "change we can believe in" is hailed as the mark of a truly great orator on the level of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Daniel Webster. Most of our intelligentsia, even those with a certain degree of intelligence themselves, can’t distinguish between modest abilities and genuine excellence, or pretend not to be able to do so when assessing those believed to be on their side.
We’re bound to suffer as imperial decline proceeds, but all will probably not be lost. Rome, Vienna, London, and Paris are still great cities, and probably more culturally alive than when they were imperial capitals. Beyond empire might lie real promise.