Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Paul Krugman is on the right road today. He just needs to travel further down it to get to the answers he is looking for.
War, Mr. Hedges says, plays to some fundamental urges. "Lurking beneath the surface of every society, including ours," he says, "is the passionate yearning for a nationalist cause that exalts us, the kind that war alone is able to deliver." When war psychology takes hold, the public believes, temporarily, in a "mythic reality" in which our nation is purely good, our enemies are purely evil, and anyone who isn't our ally is our enemy.

This state of mind works greatly to the benefit of those in power.

One striking part of the book describes Argentina's reaction to the 1982 Falklands war. Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri, the leader of the country's military junta, cynically launched that war to distract the public from the failure of his economic policies. It worked: "The junta, which had been on the verge of collapse" just before the war, "instantly became the saviors of the country."

The point is that once war psychology takes hold, the public desperately wants to believe in its leadership, and ascribes heroic qualities to even the least deserving ruler. . . .

Last week's convention made it clear that Mr. Bush intends to use what's left of his heroic image to win the election, and early polls suggest that the strategy may be working. What can John Kerry do?
Krugman has tapped into the numinous world of identity and meaning through which the Democrats must navigate but in which they are always so inept. Democrats think a mantra of economic facts and figures is enough to win an election, obsessed with the lessons of the past ("It's the economy, stupid.") and thus remarkably resistant to learning any new ones.

Among Western countries, the United States is certainly the most nationalistic and the most inclined to inflect its national identity in the traditional militaristic tones. Recall that 9/11 was immeditately labeled an attack on "America" and thus any specifics about the World Trade Center or New York are irrelevant in this war of national survival. The Republicans get away with holding their convention in one of the most hostile cities to their right-wing agenda because the convention wasn't actually in New York City, an actual place, but simply in the "America" which was attacked on September 11.

Krugman is absolutely correct that the instinct to "rally 'round the flag" is strong, particularly in nationalistic societies like the US. What he fails to appreciate fully, however, is that his prescription for John Kerry is not likely to gain much traction in the midst of the rallying.
To win, the Kerry campaign has to convince a significant number of voters that the self-proclaimed "war president" isn't an effective war leader - he only plays one on TV. . . . Iraq, in particular, is a slow-motion disaster brought on by wishful thinking, cronyism and epic incompetence. . . . as many American soldiers have died since the transfer as in the original invasion . . . he didn't prepare for things that actually mattered, like securing and rebuilding Iraq after Baghdad fell.
If this short list leaves you profoundly underwhelmed -- as it should -- you appreciate what Kerry is up against. The problem is that the chickens are far from coming home to roost on Mr. Bush's War. Russians loved WWI in 1914 and it took years of disastrous defeats on the battlefield and starvation at home to convince them by 1917 that the war was a "disaster". The Argentines loved their junta in April 1982, but by June utter defeat in the Falklands was obvious to all, followed quickly by the resignation of the Gen. Galtieri and elections the following year which finished off the entire junta itself.

No such defeats can be identified for the US in Iraq. Americans are not being conscripted to die againt their will; they are volunteers (even the ones subjected to "stop-loss" actions at least volunteered in the past) lionized in the media for asking to go to the frontlines (e.g. Pat Tillman). We are not bearing a financial burden to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan; the war is all on credit. There have been no definitive major defeats on the battlefield, only 'strategic retreats' as in Fallujah. The seeds of defeat being sown today are more political than military, the former being highly subjective and eminently deniable. Most importantly, the fruits of these seeds will not be reaped for months if not years, just as the 1973/5 retreat from Vietnam was only dimly seen and nearly universally disbelieved in 1965.

What must Kerry do? Destroy the myth. But Democrats are borderline incompetent in playing the game of symbolic politics. Today's Democrats think appeals to material interest are ultimately what really matters, but like the left in early 1920s Italy or early 1930s Germany, they are faced with a right-wing politics of resentment which must be combatted with ideas more than with statistics.

George Bush has big ideas: War on Terror, the American Family, the Ownership Society, etc. What are John Kerry's big ideas to combat them? Does he have even one?


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