Editor’s Column Fall 1998

We are all, in our way, Pythagorean mystics: slaves to a superstition that sanctifies round numbers and turns their span in years into holy days of obligation. Thus do editors plan for impending anniversaries of great events and commission op-eds and articles that place them in historical perspective. Authors likewise anticipate a lively market for books timed to appear on the twenty-fifth or one-hundredth anniversary of some watershed, beginning research years in advance. It is an odd fixation we have, pretending that the number 100 is more than merely the square of 10, the base number of our Indo-Arabic mathematical system. But it does have the merit of periodically providing work for historians.

Our grandest numerological festival looms just ahead (as if the millennium were truly a mandate of heaven instead of an accident of the Gregorian calendar, based in turn on an apparently incorrect guess as to the birth date of Jesus). But for the time being we commemorate the centennial of the Spanish-American War and for once the commemoration is timely. For Americans today, as in the 1890s, are awakening to the fact that their stupendous economic and technological progress in recent decades affords them an unprecedented opportunity to throw their weight around, for better or worse, in the world. Hence American pundits today as then are engaged in existential debate, as much moral as political, over the United States’ proper role in the world. What is more, when Americans gaze at the world today they see, not a bipolar system defined by a clash between freedom and tyranny or by sharp ideological cleavages, but rather a multipolar system of regional Great Powers not unlike the one that obtained a century ago.

In These Pages

What happened then is well known. In 1898 the United States shucked off its traditionally passive (so-called “isolationist”) persona and stepped to center stage in world affairs. It slew the wicked Spanish dragon in the name of liberating Cuba, annexed Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines, part of the Samoan and all of the Hawaiian archipelago, and inaugurated its career as a maritime and commercial power of the first rank. But the causes of that transformation, not to mention its myriad effects at home and abroad, are still cloaked in myth, misapprehension, and argumentation, perhaps nowhere so much as regarding the source of it all: the tortuous relationship between the United States and Cuba. Why is it that a full century after the American crusade for Cuba libre Cuba is still not libre? Numerous and contradictory answers to that question exist, as we shall see, and reading between their lines we may spy some of the tensions, ironies, and lessons of America’s history as a world power. Not least among them is that wanting to do good is not the same as doing it, especially when the wanting is not altogether sincere, and the doing is tinged with presumption.

In these pages, Orbis celebrates the centennial of the Spanish-American War with a bare-knuckled brawl over U.S.-Cuban relations at the end of the nineteenth century and at the end of the twentieth. In the first round two eloquent Cuban-American scholars critique the McKinley administration’s intervention in Cuba’s war of independence against Spain, but from profoundly different perspectives. To Louis A. Perez Jr., not only the upshot but the covert purpose of U.S. policy was to ensure that Cuba did not achieve true independence, thus belying the moralistic rhetoric of the Hearst Press. To Rafael E. Tarrag¢, on the other hand, the effect of U.S. intervention in 1898 was perversely to abort a natural evolution toward Cuban autonomy and reconciliation with Spain. Both arguments imply that the hostility and radicalism that finally eventuated in Fidel Castro’s regime can be traced in part to arrogant American efforts to script Cuba’s history for it.

In round two, Wayne S. Smith and Michael Radu flash forward to the present and debate current U.S. policy, with Radu defending the long-standing embargo of Castroite Cuba and Smith insisting it is counterproductive. Of course, everyone knowingly points to the powerful Cuba Lobby, given its influence in Congress and Florida politics, as the driving force behind U.S. policy. But Irving Louis Horowitz demonstrates that that, too, is an oversimplification in his incisive analysis of the diverse factions that make up that lobby.

In round three, Mark Falcoff and Kenneth Weisbrode step back from the historical and contemporary debates to gain broader perspectives of the past and future. Falcoff asks what the post-Castroite, post-revolutionary Cuban society that is soon to emerge will look like and his predictions are not encouraging.  Weisbrode, in turn, contemplates the impact of America’s “imperial” era on her leadership class and finds reason there to celebrate this centennial after all.

Two hot-button issues left over from the Cold War round out this issue of Orbis. Sumner Benson reminds us that the United States and Russia are still dancing the endless waltz of strategic arms reduction and brings us up to date on the progress of the START talks since the end of the Cold War, while Doug Bandow argues that the end of the Cold War has removed any reason for American forces to remain on the DMZ in Korea.

Come to think of it, perhaps we should have saved those articles for future issues, anticipating the fiftieth anniversaries of the Soviet A-bomb and the Korean War in 1999 and 2000.

Night Thoughts of an I.R. Professor

U.S. relations with the Caribbean basin in general and Cuba, the “jewel of the Antilles,” in particular, display some classically tragic elements. One is the presence of unalterable circumstances that confound the striving of even the best-intentioned mortals. So it is that the enormous disparity in size and power between the United States and Cuba, their hostile English Protestant and Spanish Catholic cultures, and their accidental proximity seem to ensure that they can neither march in step with the other nor be rid of the other. Another element of tragedy is the existence of a fatal character flaw that vexingly cancels out virtue. So it is that even as Americans’ attitudes and official U.S. policy have generally been grounded in good will towards their “sister republics” and “little brown brothers” to the South, their noblesse oblige has resulted time and again in behavior that wavers between paternalism and predation. Considering the use or abuse made of the islands by certain American companies and shady individuals over the years including everything from gambling, sex, and drug running to bribing governments, exploiting tax shelters, and money laundering (that is, all that “offshore” implies) one might even say that the Caribbean today is every bit the pirate zone it was in the days of the Spanish Main. But if a certain condescension has spoiled every Yankee effort to be a good neighbor to the basin, a presumption borne of self-righteousness has spoiled Cubans’ efforts to uplift themselves. Indeed, their revolutions have gotten progressively more self-defeating, not least because they can blame all their shortcomings on the United States.

The tragic result has been that the ninety miles separating Cuba from Florida’s Henry Adams prophesied as early as 1894 turned into an “ocean of mischief.”

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Harvey Sicherman, FPRI’s president, and I were lunching recently with Robert Strausz-Hup‚ when the ninety-five-year old ambassador abruptly changed the subject (I think we had been discussing the prospects for peaceful reform of the old Hapsburg Empire). Americans, he said, are consumed by a great fear, he said in his still Austrian-accented voice. I was not sure at first what he meant surely he did not mean to suggest that the American people are more afraid now, with the Cold War over and the stock market in orbit, than they had been in the 1930s and all the decades that followed save this one? Yes, that is just what he meant, and he went on to cite the Tokyo subway gassing, World Trade Center bombing, and other palpable proofs of a clear and present danger to civil society. But the fear to which he referred derived from more than specific terrorist threats. He meant to suggest that fear was an ironic byproduct of America’s very security. The United States has no real enemies abroad anymore and stands above all other military powers. Its prosperity is unprecedented and its economy surging into the twenty-first century cyberworld at a pace that leaves Europeans and Asians breathless. As a result, America is everyone’s rival, everyone’s scapegoat. Moreover, no one needs America as they did in the days of the Soviet threat. Americans themselves, in turn, have never had it so good. So, on the surface they display a benign insouciance toward foreign and domestic matters alike: if Wall Street is enjoying a Teflon market which no bad news can scorch, then Main Street is a Teflon society. But beneath the surface Americans know that such halcyon times cannot last.

One need look no further than Hollywood, whose disaster films are more prolific and profligate than ever. But the horrible Other that is the focus of fear has changed. Long ago it was Nazis or Commies or atomic mutants for whom we had only ourselves to blame. Then came the villains of the era of detente, such as the deracinated madmen of the James Bond flicks (because it was no longer polite to demonize nations). Then came the monsters, sharks, and dinosaurs, or natural disasters such as tornadoes, towering infernos, and floods, and finally the outer space aliens against whom the whole human race could unite. But today, in the new Age of Anxiety, the monsters are just rocks, comets, and asteroids flung from the heavens. The obvious will say that it is a Millennium Complex: the end of the world may well be at hand. But I wonder if Strausz-Hup‚, who has been around since World War I and felt the fears of four generations, isn’t right. What Americans fear is that the end of the nineties may well be at hand, for they suspect that things can only get worse, whether the blow comes from home or abroad.

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This is the dawning of the Age of Viagra. Why am I not surprised that the drug companies, whose annual R&D expenditures run into the billions, happened to find a cure for impotence just as soon as the baby boomers reached middle age. Ditto for new diagnostics and treatments for prostate cancer. Ditto for oversized titanium golf clubs that promise even the fifty-something novice a youthful game without investing precious hours in practice. So it is that the Me Generation need not go gently into that good night, but can instead party heartily until, in the end, it grows bored and summons Doctor Kevorkian, thus making even death an act of self indulgence.

The Destructive Generation, as David Horowitz termed the boomers, has governed much of the American marketplace since the 1950s. It now rules American politics thanks to Bill Clinton, whose election and re-election, in spite of a political rap sheet that would have sunk a candidate for town council just a few years ago, suggests that “what you did or didn’t do back in the sixties” does not matter and that the boomers will indeed get a full ride in the saddle as national leaders. Experts already speculate as to what the era will bring in domestic policy (including a spate of creative new privileges for senior citizens) and what stocks to buy to profit from an aging demographic bulge. But what, if any, effect will baby boom leadership have on U.S. foreign policy?

The boomers’ parents the World War II generation and their children who came of age in the eighties might jump to the conclusion that the coming series of administrations and Congresses, led by boomers whose formative experience was the Vietnam War, will be wary of military adventures, hostile to the notion that America is the world’s policeman, suspicious of appeals to “national security” or even “the national interest,” and enthusiastic only for “quality of life” issues such as population control, the environment, and human (especially women’s) rights. But judging from the deeds of the Clinton administration and the words of its critics, the truth is rather more complicated.

Consider, for instance, that however much the words of the Clinton administration (especially the first) echoed Jimmy Carter’s, its deeds have seemed oddly Nixonian.  Clinton has even “gone to China” and, in a blatant reversal of his 1992 campaign rhetoric, discovered in Jiang Zemin the Chinese version of Mikhail Gorbachev, the better to justify his bid for a thoroughgoing strategic partnership with Beijing. He did not even balk at meeting China’s demand that the United States distance itself further from the Republic of China on Taiwan. In return, Clinton and Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin expected the Chinese to help to quarantine the economic “Asian flu” and consult, if not collaborate, on matters of regional security. In fact, Nixon himself urged the United States to cultivate China after the Cold War and in spite of Tiananmen Squarein his final books. And no statesman has been more supportive of Clinton in that regard than Henry Kissinger.

Accordingly, those who profess to be appalled at what the Wall Street Journal termed Clinton’s “kowtowing” in Beijing are precisely those who rebelled against Nixon’s Realpolitik and detente back in the 1970s: Carterite paleo-liberals and Reaganite neo-conservatives. Meanwhile, Clinton, too, has been mired in scandals and allegations of cover-ups. But however fetching the notion of Clinton as Nixon redivivus, the analogy does not hold up. First, Nixon was a war president in command of a mobilized nation, and he engaged China as a strategic maneuver in a Cold War. Clinton is a peace president demobilizing the nation, and he engages China in hopes of avoiding a Cold War. Second, Nixon’s scandal which began with the White House Plumbers’ efforts to stop the leaks of vital information was born of his zeal to protect U.S. interests abroad even at the cost of risking his domestic political base. Clinton’s most serious scandal the Chinese campaign donations and whatever he may have promised Beijing in return was born of his zeal to protect his domestic political base even at the cost of risking U.S. interests abroad. Third, Nixon recognized that only a strong America could command the respect and earn the cooperation of Beijing and its more formal allies. Hence he struggled to limit the damage done to America’s posture and lay the groundwork for a post-Vietnam world order. Clinton, by contrast, appears determined to let the U.S. military shrink further even as he turns it into a global constabulary responsible for peacekeeping on every continent: the very “world policeman” role he and his ilk once scorned.

Is this Clinton approach to foreign policy just cynical, or shrewdly geopolitical, or the product of a world view shaped by his “formative years” in the sixties? He is, after all, the standard-bearer for the last generation of Americans subject to the draft and the first to have dodged it in large numbers. Thus, he and much of his generation have a psychological stake in promoting the notion that their choice back then said more about their morals than their courage. Clinton himself professed to hate the military, denounced American pretensions in the Third World, and spied a certain moral equivalence between Communism and the West. Thus it follows logically that as President he would squeeze the military’s war-fighting capacity while imposing upon it liberationist values dating from the sixties. It also follows that he would recognize North Vietnam, respond to North Korea’s threats with aid and comfort, and (after a brief post-inaugural spat) embrace the heirs of Mao Zedong. For to do the opposite to maintain America’s war-winning capacity, repent of vain state-building missions, and oppose Communist dictatorships on principle would be to admit that the “Sex, Drugs, and Rock’n’Roll” generation was in fact on the wrong side of history.

And yet, for worse or for better, President Clinton’s foreign policy is just what the country wants, baby boomers and others alike, because the voters do not really want a foreign policy at all. If they did, they would not have turned out George Bush in 1992 and preferred the flawed Clinton to an experienced solon and wounded World War II soldier in 1996. Panicky Republican internationalists have interpreted this as a renascence of traditional “isolationism,” and reach for stirring words and visions to combat it. But it is not isolationism.  It is simply an expression of the fact that there are no enemies out there (save wandering asteroids, the tracking of which comprises NASA’s largest new program) sufficient to alarm the American people.

David Eisenhower spelled all this out in 1996, observing that if the twenty-four-year historical cycle continues to hold, we will not have another “foreign policy presidential campaign” until the year 2016. Until then, Americans led by the baby boomers will see no need to sacrifice for grand causes abroad and will rest content with a foreign policy that is one part police work deterring or arresting “rogues” and “gangsters”and one part sermonizing on the text “Just say no to human rights abuses.” And that is why the apparently great debate among Clintonites, neo-conservative internationalist activists, and Buchananite nationalists is (dare I say it) irrelevant. Barring that unnamed disaster the American people fear, our diplomatic debate will consist of differences without distinctions. No one wants another Cold War, or a return to the isolationism of the 1930s. Hence the argument is really more about who gets to staff the executive branch than about the meaning of American leadership in the twenty-first century.

A final contrast between Nixon and Clinton will nail down the point. Nixon finally resigned because he knew at length he had lost the political base needed to govern, and the nation desperately needed governing in 1975. In 1998, by contrast, the American people do not want Clinton to resign precisely because he cannot govern. Congress is the hands of his opponents, and he dare not ask anything even of Democrats, for they are his insurance policy against impeachment. The American people are delighted, for with the budget balanced and the world serene, they want nothing from government. Clinton’s impotence, if you will, is his strength and he knows it.