Repeating the Fundamental Mistake

Every few years I find it useful to reread David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest and see how we’re doing. There’s always some current policy that lines up exactly and there’s always some way in which — unexpectedly — things have changed. But what changes the most each time is my own eye, by which I mean, that which jumps off the page most clearly, directly, unavoidably. In different eras, different bits of the analysis rise and fall in significance.

The first time I tried to read this inch-by-inch analysis of how the US got into the quagmire of its war in Vietnam, the details nearly did me in. Did we really need to know who attended which meeting and what they said? Why did China make such a difference, except in the most thorough historiography? Honest readers could debate these things all day — and often do. And then, five or ten years later, it’s time to do it again.

This time, the something that leaps off the page in a way that it never has before, is what Halberstam referred to as the fundamental error of the early decision-makers: “A quick assumption here, that the government and the people of South Vietnam were as one, that what Diem wanted was what ‘the people’ wanted: a quick assumption which haunted American policy-makers throughout the crisis.”  (p. 170, 1992 edition). It has taken me some time to acknowledge to myself that the times this phrase echoes most often are moments when I see President Obama speaking, for instance this week at the United Nations, with the confidence and vigor of a stable regime. It echoes as my wife and I watch countless hours of C-Span — hearing after hearing, think tank panel after think tank panel. Sometimes someone will address life as we are living it, but usually, that happens on Book TV, not American Government or Washington Journal. Not the callers, but the pundits and politicians channels might as well be discussing another country.

I find this disturbing. The Best and the Brightest concerns the intersection of domestic and foreign policy, but mostly, it’s about foreign policy. Halberstam’s analysis always circles back around to how we can achieve better foreign policy. As many times as I’ve read it, this is the first time I felt that the primary problem described above — that the government and the people have radically divergent interests– applies more to us Americans than to the nations we are bombing, invading, corrupting. What Washington wants is not what the people want — left, right or center — and what the people want is no particular interest to the government.

Just to continue with this scary motif for a moment, let’s link it to the unprecedented appearance of major military tools placed in the hands of domestic policing entities. Governments who do not wish to carry out the wishes of the people will eventually understand that they do not wish to carry out the wishes of the people. At first, they kind of drift away, but eventually the benefits of being in government for the benefit of someone other than the people being governed becomes too tempting. Intentional. Directional. At that point, members of the government with this goal — at all levels — will organize systems by which to suppress rebellion and opposition. So perhaps what happened at Davis, in Ferguson, are harbingers of a non-constitutional authority.

Once governments want non-democratic authority, they want immediate access to military equipment. Just as the Southern Poverty Law Center keeps track of white supremacist organizations and their terrorist potential, someone needs to start tracking all this police equipment and making it widely known. What is this “training” that comes with it? When are the “conferences” that role play best uses? Who gets to go to these things and who pays?

That’s what I want to see on C-span now. It’s more likely, of course, on Democracy Now! or Al Jazeera, but I doubt the Tea Party care any less about this problem than do we Progressives. In fact, I am starting to wonder if those crazy old-time right-wingers might not have been on to something that the rest of us should have paid more attention to.

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