July 6, 2016

The Tragedy of Tony Blair

The scathing Chilcot verdict on Tony Blair’s contribution to the war on Iraq brings to mind a more awful tragedy: that more politicians – notably of the American variety – have not suffered the public, ...

The scathing Chilcot verdict on Tony Blair’s contribution to the war on Iraq brings to mind a more awful tragedy: that more politicians – notably of the American variety – have not suffered the public, private and utter disgrace now falling on Perfidious Albion.

It took Donald Trump – in a rare moment of clarity – to shout the news into Jeb Bush’s face: that his brother George had lied his way into a $5-trillion blunder and crime, still bleeding all over the place. How prissily evasive is the near-silence in our country, to this day! George W. Bush and his team of Vulcans – Cheney, Rumsfeld, Feith, Wolfowitz and Co, and all those career-driven Senators and camp followers in media – have escaped Sir John Chilcot’s overdue sentence: to fess up their individual guilt and abject sorrow, and please now get off the stage. How much of the defining rage of 2016 rises simply from the anomaly (absurdity, anyone?) that Hillary Clinton, who cast her Senate vote for George Bush’s war, is running on her ‘experience’?

Sidney_blumenthal_2006In both sorrow and anger, I’m chewing over the Tony Blair story here with my friend of four decades, Sidney Blumenthal, who had a hand in writing it. We met a few weeks ago to talk through his acute personal take on Abraham Lincoln in A Self-Made Man – and the fixation Sidney shares with Abe on politics as vast and intimate theater. But on the Chilcot news blockbuster, it’s the digressions on Tony Blair that leap out of our conversation. Sidney had been ahead of the reporters’ pack in 1991 in marking Bill Clinton’s schmoozing route to the Democratic nomination. Writing for The New Republic and then The New Yorker, Sid Blumenthal in effect presided at the conversational table around the Clintons—contributing, not least, “a vast right-wing conspiracy” as the catch-phrase explaining Bill’s setbacks in office.

Meantime, Sidney and his wife Jackie, on their 20th wedding anniversary in 1996, turned their Washington reception into a party for Tony Blair—and Hillary came! It was the beginning of a political alliance and adventure that isn’t over yet. With George Bush in the White House after 9/11, Tony Blair was eager still to be a “strong ally,” as Sidney puts it. He wound up enabling the war in Iraq, being used, deceived and finally “destroyed” by it.

Hear more of our conversation below:

October 22, 2015

Second-Guessing Syria

Syria has been burning now for four years — with millions displaced into Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq, more than 250,000 dead, and no end in sight.In March of 2014, Stephen Walt, Harvard’s “realist” foreign-policy hand, warned against a ...

Syria has been burning now for four years — with millions displaced into Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq, more than 250,000 dead, and no end in sight.

In March of 2014, Stephen Walt, Harvard’s “realist” foreign-policy hand, warned against a costly and uncertain entanglement in Syria as against national security interests on our show.

Today, to his credit, Walt is wondering whether he was wrong to warn against intervention, as we all watch a human tragedy unfold on a grand scale.

What was disturbing in 2012 has become apocalyptic. Russian and Iranian forces are backing the Syrian assault on Aleppo, dislocating tens of thousands of people each day. ISIS has emerged as an uncontrollable third party in the conflict. Our guest Lina Sergie tells us her Syrian-American friends are surprising themselves: many are turning to Jeb Bush, the candidate most loudly saying that we’re “duty bound” to take on Assad with muscle.

In his column at Foreign Policy, Walt concluded “with some genuine reluctance” that holding back the Western military in Syria remained the right course. But we want to dig deeper than that: to the yet-unimagined theory of this country’s military mega-power that allows for both life-saving interventions in terrible situations and for prudence and timely restraint. (Does such a thing exist?)

What would have worked, what were the worries, and what are the war-weary Western powers to do when millions of innocent lives are on the line?

Photo by Srdjan Zivulovic/Reuters.

This Week's Show • August 7, 2014

Andrew Bacevich: America’s War for the Greater Middle East

How do you end an endless war? Thirty years ago Jimmy Carter declared the Persian Gulf a "vital" focus of American foreign policy. Since then, U.S. forces have invaded, occupied, garrisoned, bombed or raided 18 nations, absorbing thousands of casualties and getting little in return in terms of peace or goodwill.

How do you end an endless war? Thirty years ago Jimmy Carter declared the Persian Gulf a “vital” focus of American foreign policy. Since then, U.S. forces have invaded, occupied, garrisoned, bombed or raided 18 nations, absorbing thousands of casualties and getting little in return in terms of peace or goodwill.

Andrew Bacevich, the military historian, veteran and professor of international relations at Boston University calls it America’s War for the Greater Middle East and says there’s no end in sight. This fall he’s teaching a twelve-week online course on the history of that long war: he begins it in the Iran hostage crisis during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, through stages of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the first Gulf War, then September 11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Jump into our timeline and suggest your own alternative policy approaches or argue the premise.

July 17, 2014

Lines In The Sand

The borders that divide up our modern world hinge, sometimes, on decisions that have stopped making sense. The Middle East is still suffering from unhealed wounds resulting from the boundaries established a hundred years ago in secret by two men, Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot, that carved the former Ottoman empire into today's Middle East. As geopolitics changes around the world, why don't those political maps?
SykesPicot

Guest List

Juan Cole, academic, blogger and tireless watcher of the Middle East — his new book is called The New Arabs: How The Millennial Generation is Changing the Middle East.

Seyla Benhabib, the Yale political scientist and a philosopher of borders and cosmopolitanism.

Labib Nasir, a Palestinian reporter for Reuters who covered the Arab Spring from North Africa.

The borders that divide up our modern world hinge, sometimes, on decisions that have stopped making sense. The Middle East is still suffering from unhealed wounds resulting from the boundaries established a hundred years ago in secret by two men, Mark Sykes and Francois Georges Picot, that carved the former Ottoman empire into today’s Middle East. As geopolitics changes around the world, why don’t those political maps?

 

Read More

• Our friend Stephen Kinzer launched the conversation this week in The Boston Globe, writing on the flexibility of human borders and the news from Iraq and Syria;

• Juan Cole says the Arab Spring dream, apparently lost in fighting across borders and crackdowns within them, isn’t dead yet in The Los Angeles Times;

• John Judis and Nick Danforth have already playing out one side of the debate this week.

In The New Republic, Judis makes an argument we’ve seen many times since 2003: that the Middle East as a colonial creation, is coming undone. Danforth’s response, in the Atlantic, sees that line of thought as dangerously out-of-focus. The real disaster, he writes, was “the truly pernicious policy of divide-and-rule that the French and British used to sustain their power… The militarization of these ethnic and religious identities, rather than the failure of perfectly placed state borders to alleviate tension between them, explains much of violence in the Middle East today.

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• There’s another geo-controversy brewing around our guest Juan Cole’s mapping of shrinking Palestinian territory since 1948. Cole sees the maps as proof that the hardcore Israeli leadership has no plans to stop settling the West Bank or to accept anything short of a unified Israel. The Netanyahu government confirmed some of those fears this week, with a snub to Biden and a declaration of intent, off the radar of the American media.

• Frank Jacobs, geographer of the odd, took on the borders separating Israel and Palestine and India and Pakistan in his fine Times blog, “Borderlines”.

• Finally, glimpses of hope on the horizon: the president of Iraqi Kurdistan visits Ankara this week, seeking to ease some of his nation’s tense history with the Turks. And Haaretz asks for a revolution in Israeli culture as a step toward attacking the crisis at its roots in hearts and minds.

April 3, 2014

Iraq: What’s Known, What’s Unknown, What We Don’t Want to Know

The best question about the Iraq war perhaps isn't for the architects, but for us: what does it say about our system, our media, our country, and our age that we haven't held anyone responsible for the catastrophe in Iraq apart from Chelsea Manning and a few enlisted men and women at Abu Ghraib? Isn't there a lesson for us in the life and times of Donald Rumsfeld?
Stephen Kinzer on the Dulles Brothers
Lawrence Wilkerson: Why Does Rumsfeld Always Win?
Phil Klay: Redeployment
Rumsfeld, Snowflake by Snowflake

TheUnknownKnown

Guest List

Mark Danner, supreme chronicler of the wars and of America’s military misadventures for the New York Times, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books.

Stephen Kinzer, reporter, academic, and author, most recently of The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War.

Col. Lawrence Wilkerson (Ret.), former chief of staff to Colin Powell and a first-rate thinker on war and foreign policy.

Errol Morris’s movie The Unknown Known is the provocation this week: cinema sequel to the Oscar winning documentary on Robert McNamara and Vietnam, “The Fog of War.”  The Rumsfeld questions implied by Morris but unanswered in the movie begin with who Rumsfeld was, and what he was up to; how has the experience of a trillion-dollar catastrophe sailed past any apparent reflection or rethinking on the part of the Iraq War’s architect. The journalist Mark Danner, who covered the war and is now covering the aftermath, says the inconvenient truth here is that the public doesn’t want to reconsider it either, because we’re all implicated in the shame. 

Rumsfeld spent 33 hours talking into Errol Morris’s camera — an exercise in cheerful deflection, denial and a good deal of distortion of the checkable record, including his own public memos and comments.  The architects won’t answer them, so the questions come back to us, whether we want them or not. What does it say about our system, our media, our country, and our age that we haven’t held anyone responsible for the catastrophe in Iraq apart from Chelsea Manning and a few enlisted men and women at Abu Ghraib? Isn’t there a lesson for us in the life and times of Donald Rumsfeld?

Reading List

• Mark Danner’s three-part series on Rumsfeld for the New York Review of Books, listed here;
• Errol Morris’s  massive four-part series chasing after the philosophy of Donald Rumsfeld for The New York Times — it begins here;
• Lawrence Wilkerson’s interview with us on the subject of Rumsfeld and the war in Iraq;
• The transcript from Bill Moyers’s troubling documentary on how America was sold that war;
• And our friend Muhammad Idrees Ahmad’s latest comment on the war, in anticipation of his forthcoming book, The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War.

And check out our extra content this week: an interview with the veteran-writer Phil Klay, a reflection in memos on the making of The Unknown Known, and archive interviews with guests Lawrence Wilkerson and Steve Kinzer.

Podcast • April 3, 2014

Phil Klay: Redeployment

Phil Klay has assembled a remarkable group of fictional short stories in a collection called Redeployment. A Dartmouth alum with two brothers in the military, he joined the Marine Corps, serving as a Public Affairs Officer in Iraq's Anbar Province between the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. Redeployment explores the horrors of the battlefield, and the shaken veterans that struggle to escape them.

 

Phil Klay has assembled a remarkable group of fictional short stories in a collection called Redeployment. A Dartmouth alum with two brothers in the military, he joined the Marine Corps, serving as a Public Affairs Officer in Iraq’s Anbar Province between the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. Redeployment explores the horrors of the battlefield, and the shaken veterans that struggle to escape them.

“Growing up,” Jessie says, “Sarah spent a lot of time at our house, and she still spends some holidays with us. Her family is a mess. And last Thanksgiving we were talking with my grandpa about how nobody remembers Korea, and he said the only way to do it right wasn’t to do a film about the war. Do a film about a kid, growing up. About the girl he falls in love with and breaks his heart and how he joins the Army after World War Two. Then he starts a family and his first kid is born and it teaches him what it means to value life and to have something to live for and how to care for other people. And then Korea happens and he’s sent over there and he’s excited and scared and he wonders if he’ll be courageous and he’s kind of proud and then in the last sixty seconds of the film they put them in boats to go to Inchon and he’s shot in the water and drowns in three feet of surf and the movie doesn’t even give him a close-up, it just ends. That’d be a war film.”

An excerpt from “War Stories”

 

Phil Klay’s Reading List on the Iraq War

Matt Gallagher – Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War

Jessica Goodell & John Heam – Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq

David Finkel – The Good Soldiers

Joe Haldeman – The Forever War

Adrian Bonenberger – Afghan Post

By the Way • March 17, 2014

The Armor You Have

If you come to see the emblem of the police department of your small town on the door of a giant armored truck, you'll have seen the end of a long story — the story of America's lurch into and out of what's sometimes called, in Pentagon jargon, the battlespace. Consider the MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected): in effect, an enormous armored truck.

This piece is a follow up to our March 13, 2014 show, “Will We Ever Get Over 9/11?”

If you come to see the emblem of the police department of your small town on the large door of an armored truck, you’ll have seen the end of a long story — the story of America’s lurch into and out of what’s sometimes called, in Pentagon jargon, the battlespace.

Consider the MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected): in effect, an enormous armored truck. A typical model, the Navistar MaxxPro, weighs almost 38,000 pounds — not a tank, technically, but only thirty percent lighter than the Bradley Fighting Vehicles that charged down Iraqi highways in the Gulf War. You can tell an MRAP by its nautical-looking V-shaped hull, high off the ground, a small architectural change that diverts much of the force of explosions coming from below. (The innovation dates to 1960s and ’70s, to the colonial armies of southern Africa, of the 1960s and ’70s engaged in guerrilla warfare against rebels prone to laying mines.)

One Navistar MaxxPro now belongs to the police department of Madison, Wisconsin; there’s another in Watertown, New York. The Georgia communities of Waycross, Cartersville, Doraville, and Newnan each have their own large armored vehicles. In fact MRAPs and machines like them now appear in semi-official photographic tableaux on law-enforcement homepages across the country. Ohio State University has an MRAP; Virginia Tech has one that appears during athletic events, with the Nike “swoosh” logo and the words, “PREPARE FOR COMBAT” across the back. These vehicles look like bigger versions of the ones that gathered redundantly around the Arsenal Mall during Boston’s post-Marathon manhunt last April, and that roll back and forth down Storrow Drive on the Fourth of July.

We may forget that many of these vehicles were built for a military purpose: to endure the kind of explosive that is never detonated in the United States, to win the sort of war that we are supposed to have left behind.

The U.S. Department of Defense called a new wave of MRAPs into being in 2007 in an attempt to counter the improvised explosive device, or IED, which was still wreaking havoc on American forces in Iraq. This was fully two years after a frustrated army specialist—one of thousands who had been asked to prepare for IED attack by, at worst, affixing plywood and sandbags to his Humvee—confronted Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld during a town-hall meeting in Kuwait. His question: “Now why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up armor our vehicles, and why don’t we have those resources readily available to us?” Rumsfeld’s reply may serve as the epitaph of the entire war.

Memos from the weeks following show Rumsfeld worrying aloud about armored trucks to Pentagon brass, but quickly he was reassured. No one, he was told, was going to be asked to travel around Iraq without sufficient armor: “They are simply going to change the tactics… That issue ought to be eliminated, one would think.” Two days later, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army Chief of Staff, followed up: the Army would stick with the (supremely vulnerable) Humvee, while it considered whether to buy MRAPs and which ones. Over the next two years, IEDs would continue to kill and maim soldiers — 993 dead, more than 11,000 wounded — unless they were riding in MRAPs. According to one manufacturer, Force Protection, Inc., its model, the Cougar, was hit 3,200 times over five years, but only five of its passengers were killed. It is unclear who to blame for the slow trickle of these vehicles into the warzones through the end of 2006, but it is clear by now that many parties — Secretary Rumsfeld’s office, the contracted manufacturers, and military leadership — share responsibility for the protracted vulnerability of Americans at war.

It was Rumsfeld’s replacement, Robert Gates, who openly embraced the MRAP, ordering more than 15,000 vehicles by the end of 2007 and jumpstarting production. $44 billion was earmarked for the vehicle program in total. This allotment was for the most part separate from the more than $20 billion spent on the Joint IED Defeat Organization, the search for a durable high-tech solution to the roadside-bomb problem which is considered one of the wars’ great sources of waste. Together, the initiatives amounted to at least $64 billion spent in response to a weapon, the IED, that costs around $30 to make.

Across 2007 and 2008, IED and other violence dropped across the board in Iraq, following the surge in troop levels. It is not clear to what extent the late-coming MRAPs played a role, or what good effect they might have had on veterans’ lives or on the course of the American adventure in Iraq if they had been available in sufficient numbers from day one. There are now 10,000 and more of the vehicles in Afghanistan, the graveyard of Soviet tanks.

***

Now we are witnessing the transfer of these specialized, heavy-duty war machines to domestic law-enforcement agencies of varying size. Under the Defense Department’s 1033 Program, more than 13,000 MRAPs, once sorely needed and now denoted as “excess property”, have been offered to sheriff’s departments, prisons, and campus police for free or for the price of shipping. (Business Insider likened it to buying a preowned luxury sedan with 100,000 miles on the odometer.)

The acquisition program has alarmed both the ACLU, which began a “Towns Don’t Need Tanks” campaign last year, and a more extreme libertarian set online. When the website Infowars reported (erroneously) last year that the Department for Homeland Security was going to acquire 2,700 MRAPs for itself, some posted strategies for disabling the vehicles if they were ever put to use on American citizens in what’s called the “S.H.T.F.” contingency. Recommendations include tipping them over (they have a high center of gravity), leading them into holes hidden under leaves, and blowing them up using homemade IEDs.

Many of the officials acquiring the MRAPs admit the vehicles’ overkill aesthetic. But they’re also clearly pleased, both by their power to intimidate and by the fire-sale price. If they cost nothing, if they were going to be reduced to scrap metal anyway, they are post-consumer material. There can be no complaint of waste no matter how, or whether, the MRAPs are ever needed by the small-town police forces that inherit them. Sheriff Wayne Gallant of Oxford County, Maine (pop. 57,481), whose office received one Navistar MaxxPro, gave a shrug to the Bangor Daily News: “It’s just going to be a safety tool, it’s not going to be used as a patrol unit or anything like that… Maybe it will never be used.”

As soldiers waited in Iraq and Afghanistan, now we wait here — not for the armor-plated rescue vehicle, but for the emergency that could warrant its place in our lives.

— Max Larkin.

Podcast • April 2, 2013

Kevin Powers and The Yellow birds: What were we doing there?

In my own experience I had moments of lucidity when I recognized what was happening to me. And I recognized ways in which my own moral center was being knocked out of alignment… We were ...

In my own experience I had moments of lucidity when I recognized what was happening to me. And I recognized ways in which my own moral center was being knocked out of alignment… We were on a patrol once, dismounting our vehicles. I was pulling security on a ridge line near Mosul, and I realized that in fact we were on the walls of ancient Nineveh. And something about that recognition was so alarming to me — that we were in this place that was, really, in the Cradle of Civilization. What are we doing here? Why am I here? I mean, knowing that my job as a soldier was to kill people. Ultimately, if you’re wearing the uniform, if you’re carrying a weapon, that’s what your job comes down to. And it was so staggering to me in that moment. But then that moment passed, and moments like that would come and go.

Novelist Kevin Powers, of The Yellow Birds, with Chris Lydon in Boston, March 2013

Kevin Powers is being credited with the first literary masterpiece of the war in Iraq. My question in our conversation is why, like so many horrifying war masterpieces since the Iliad, The Yellow Birds leaves us feeling so helpless to fight the next onset of the madness.

Drawing on Kevin Powers’ life as a teen-age Army volunteer from Richmond, Va and a year’s duty as a machine-gunner near Mosul, The Yellow Birds is an absorbingly double-edged book. One very short form might be: Yes, the war was as cruel and criminal a mission as we all knew in our guts it had to be — young kids scared out of their wits 24/7, asking what the f*** are we doing here? The Yellow Birds is a consuming observation of breakdowns — of fraternity and loyalty, discipline and sanity; but it leaves no doubt that the general collapse began in a cloud of delusion and oblivion on the home front. Dave Eggers calls it a “gorgeous novel” and “easily the saddest book I’ve read in many years. But sad in an important way.”

Both the sadness and the significance of it affirm the great wisdom of William James. “Showing war’s irrationality and horror is of no effect” on modern man, as James wrote in The Moral Equivalent of War. “The horrors make the fascination. War is the strong life; it is life in extremis; war taxes are the only ones men never hesitate to pay, as the budgets of all nations show us…”

A commenter on the Guardian website made James’ point more pointedly about this very book that everyone (me, too) finds “beautiful,” this winner of the Guardian’s First Book Award. “Kevin Powers’ novel is part of the war industry,” wrote “fan64”. “None of this beauty and fascination would be possible without the warmongers we pretend to hate — oh, and the voters who elect them and become their war consumers…”

Oh, and us readers as well. As I confessed to Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds is a marvelous accomplishment that made me feel sick.

Podcast • October 1, 2012

Eric Hobsbawm, 1917 – 2012: In Memoriam

It’s a privilege at Eric Hobsbawm’s death this morning to share again the lively sound of his wondrously learned, penetrating mind. Five years ago, in his book-stuffed living-room in London, the 90-year-old author of historical ...

hobsbawm14It’s a privilege at Eric Hobsbawm’s death this morning to share again the lively sound of his wondrously learned, penetrating mind. Five years ago, in his book-stuffed living-room in London, the 90-year-old author of historical classics like The Age of Empire: 1875 – 1914 was the rare public-intellectual on either side of the Atlantic who spoke plainly of the George Bush / Tony Blair war on Iraq as dementia: “Frankly, I can’t make sense of what has happened in the United States since 9/11 that enabled a group of political crazies to realize long-held plans for an unaccompanied solo performance of world supremacy.” As he’d written in a last little jewel of a book, On Empire: America, War and Global Supremacy, “The age of empires is dead. We shall have to find another way of organizing the globalized world of the twenty-first century.”

Eric Hobsbawm’s immersion in American jazz and his lifetime of ecstatic leftist interpretations of it were for me his crowning endearment. Jazz, as he wrote in The New York Review of Books in the 1980s, “was, as sport is for the athlete, a continuous means of asserting oneself as a human being, as an agent in the world and not the subject of others’ actions, as a discipline of the soul, a daily testing, an expression of the value and sense of life, a way to perfection.” It was the great modern art, he wrote, that owed nothing to middle-class culture. As a token of my thanks, I mailed Eric Hobsbawm a copy of the only great jazz book he didn’t have: Arthur Taylor’s incomparably candid conversations with jazz giants of the late 60s — Miles Davis, Hampton Hawes, Erroll Garner, Thelonius Monk most memorably — called Notes and Tones. Eric Hobsbawm thanked me wonderfully by email:

Dear Chris,

Just received your wonderful book of interviews which I am reading with passionate interest. I never knew Erroll Garner talked so much, unlike Dexter Gordon.

All the best,

Thanks,

Eric

An historian of ever widening scope, Eric Hobsbawm had been taking the long view for a very long time. His definition of the historian’s trade was: “how and why Homo sapiens got from the paleolithic to the nuclear age.” Born in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution, Hobsbawm is 90 now, but in his pungent writing and talk, the species is young, and the future is everything.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Eric Hobsbawm here (34 minutes, 16 mb mp3)

We left Africa 100,000 years ago. The whole of what is usually described as ‘history’ since the invention of agriculture and cities consists of hardly more than 400 human generations or 10,000 years, a blink of the eye in geological time. Given the dramatic acceleration of the pace of humanity’s control over nature in this brief period, especially in the last ten or twenty generations, the whole of history so far can be seen to be something like an explosion of our species, a sort of bio-social supernova, into an unknown future. Let us hope it is not a catastrophic one. In the meanwhile, and for the first time, we have an adequate framework for a genuinely global history, and one restored to its proper central place, neither within the humanities nor the natural and mathematical sciences, nor separated from them, but essential to both. I wish I were young enough to take part in writing it.

Eric Hobsbawm, in his autobiography, Interesting Times, Pantheon, 2002.

In an hour’s conversation in Hobsbawm’s house in Hampstead Heath, we didn’t have time to revisit the famously exotic dimensions of his life: his quasi-religious attachment to Communism and his fascination with jazz, or the polar views of the man and his work. Link here to the loving, the venomous and the measured. Hobsbawm’s bookshelves groan with a lot of my favorite jazz tomes, like Stanley Dance’s The World of Count Basie, and Robert Gottlieb’s collection, Reading Jazz. I am sending him Arthur Taylor’s marvelous interviews with the post-Parker jazz stars through the Civil Rights revolution, Notes and Tones. But in the time we had, it seemed best to hear the crunchy numbers and sweeping authority that are acknowledged from all points of the history profession — not least from his young opposite number, the neo-imperialist Niall Ferguson .

I asked him to speak of the themes in his pithy new book: On Empire: America, War and Global Supremacy. I said it’s still mysterious to me that Tony Blair and long post-imperial Britain followed President Bush and the United States into Iraq.

CL: What does that war mean for the UK, the US, for the future of hegemony?

EH: The interesting thing about the Iraq war is that unlike the first gulf war, unlike even the first American intervention after 911 in Afghanistan, it has no common support, at all. Overwhelmingly most countries were against it, and the others were skeptical. With the single exception of Great Britain. Great Britain I think has been tied to the United States ever since, I think, its own status as a nuclear power became dependent effectively on the American supplies, and ever since its status as an international power became dependent effectively on access to American technical intelligence. And I think that’s one major reason why they felt they couldn’t possibly break. That doesn’t explain why we had to rush into it, devote an enormous amount of our energies and military force, and reputation. After all … when L. B. Johnson asked our Prime Minister Wilson to send the Black Watch to Vietnam, he refused to do it. Very quietly. He kept on repeating how totally in favor he was of the Americans, but he didn’t do anything. Unlke Blair. Blair rushed in, because I think he loved the idea of being as it were a deputy imperial power. And let’s make no mistake about it: he also thought somehow or other, there needed to be Western force which somehow controlled the disorder in the world — which is no longer controllable by anybody in the old 19th Century imperial way. That’s the thing to remember.

CL: And why not?

EH: The Iraq war has shown it but not only the Iraq war. Things like Darfur — where nowadays you say you need at least 26,000 troops simply to watch over the whole thing. The basic fact is that the populations of the world are no longer prepared to accept power as something that is authentic and authoritative. Imperialism in the old days was based on the assumption that quite small groups of people armed with high tech could establish themselves and be accepted, like it or not by millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions. Partly because power is there, and poor people have lived under power all the time. One or two exceptions — places like Afghanistan or Kurdistan, where nobody liked power, states or any kind of thing, never did and don’t now. But there was that, and at the same time also there was the possiblity of making alliances with locals who wanted modernization, which in those days meant Westernization. It doesn’t mean Westernization any more, and the power has gone and the willingness to accept the power has gone.

CL: We’re reminded that the British ran India with a civil service smaller than the welfare department of New York City.

EH: Once the Indians stopped accepting the fact that British Raj, the British domination, was as legitimate as any other conquerer that had ever been there and established their power, that was the end of the British Empire.

CL: Has the Iraq war moved the center in the world and has it changed the agenda of the new century?

EH: Well, it has in the sense that it makes the enormous military force and the enormous military technological superiority of the United States (unprecedented and really unlikely to be equalled by anybody within the reasonable future) it makes it irrelevent, because it doesn’t really help. What could you do? You could easily capture lots of Baghdads. What would happen then? We know what happened when we captured Baghdad. We know what happened after we captured Kabul. Several years after that, thirty percent of Afghanistan is under the vague control of somebody who came in then, by us. And the rest is not under control. So what’s the use of having this particular superiority? You cannot do it without a political base.

CL: Does the rise of China and does the rising wealth and numbers of an expanding Europe fill the gap?

EH: Europe doesn’t fill the gap. Europe in the broad sense belongs to the part of the world which no longer actually reproduces itself demographically, and therefore relies very largely on immigration. But basically speaking Europe is no longer — I mean, it has enormous assets and it is an economy which is as big as the United States; actually at this very moment the average British income, share of the GDP per person, is higher than the United States, which was last the case, I think, in 1890 — but the fact is: Europe is itself, apart from being a large cultural and above all economic unit, is not a major international political and military unit. The United States relies, I think, on the one thing which is unique for the United States, namely its military power. But that’s the one which is limited and there’s not very much you can do with it, short of bombing the world to bits. And there’s no sense in that. And in fact once a sensible American government comes back, they will get back to the position of, say, J. F. Kennedy who knew right from the beginning that bombing the world to bits was no solution for anything.

Eric Hobsbawm, in conversation with Chris Lydon, at his home in London, February 28, 2008.

When my recorder and I suddenly needed a pair of double-A batteries, Eric Hobsbawm jumped up and found them in his hardware drawer. And when he spoke briefly about the Internet’s penetration of culture and consciousness in little more than a decade, I realized the man is as modern as tomorrow. Thank you, Eric Hobsbawm.

Podcast • September 10, 2011

Catherine Lutz: “magical thinking” and the costs of war

Catherine Lutz delivers her conservative Costs of War accounting in a calm teacherly tone, but her reckoning is nothing short of outrageous: it was a 5 Trillion Dollar War after all, this ten-year response to ...

Catherine Lutz delivers her conservative Costs of War accounting in a calm teacherly tone, but her reckoning is nothing short of outrageous: it was a 5 Trillion Dollar War after all, this ten-year response to 9/11. She is counting, on top of the direct military allocations, something like a trillion for the lifetime care of American service men and women injured in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan; and probably another trillion in interest on a credit-card war, financed without war taxes or even a pretense of shared sacrifice. She is not counting the war damages our force inflicted on invisible, mostly innocent villages and families under our guns. She is not counting the “opportunity cost” in jobs, profits, and sustainable growth in the US if the war investment had gone to the basics of a modern economy, like science, education, and infrastructure.

The multiples in relation to the World Trade Center attacks are astonishing. The ratio of war dead over ten years to the 3000 lives lost on September 11, 2011 is more than 80 to 1. The dollar ratio is grotesque. If indeed the satanic Osama bin Laden was calculating a pin-point assault to provoke an enfeebling, self-ruinous fit of reaction, his payoff in a $5-trillion war to answer his $500,000 attack was 10-million to 1.

‘It’s phenomenal,” notes Lutz, though she is keeping her professorial cool. “One could talk about over-reaction to 9/11. But I think we also have to talk about what the Iraq War was all about. We know that it had nothing to do with 9/11 — that 9/11 was the pretext for that invasion. So all of the lost lives and dollars for Iraq were not even intended as remedy. But we have to ask ourselves: how did that happen, and how does it continue to happen?”

Catherine Lutz, the Brown University anthropologist, with Neta Crawford of Boston University and Linda Bilmes of Harvard, led a score of scholars in tabulating what the government and the loyal opposition might have been arguing about over the last decade — what the networks and newspapers should have been clarifying. War “without a scorecard” has hardened us to a cruel, fruitless succession of imperial campaigns that, despite the evidence, reinforce a heedless faith in the war remedy. At the ten-year mark, Professor Lutz is saying, we are overdue for a public conversation “about our overestimation of the utility of force. We could talk about why we believe force works. I think there’s a kind of magical thinking in this. People assume that if something bad didn’t happen to us, it must be because we deployed force in the Middle East. That doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. There’s no good evidence that any significant part of that investment panned out.”