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December 11, 2009

Rounding Up the Week: McChrystal, Pakistan and a Defense of Woodrow Wilson
Posted by Michael Cohen

It's hard to know what to believe and what to dismiss in Mark Perry's less than generous take on General McChrystal's role in the Afghan review process, but it does dovetail pretty closely with a couple of AMCW posts back from the summer and fall. In particular, this graf:

"From the minute that McChrystal showed up in Kabul, he drove the debate," a White House official confirms. "You'll notice - from May on it was no longer a question of whether we should follow a military strategy or deploy additional troops. It was always, 'should we do 20,000 or 30,000 or 40,000, or even 80,000'? We weren't searching for the right strategy; we were searching for the right number."

Hmm, that sounds familiar. There is also this about McChrystal's comment in an October speech in London that VP Biden's more modest CT strategy wouldn't work:

McChrystal described Biden's skepticism as "short-sighted" - an embarrassing and bald abrogation of Gates' oft-stated rule that military officers should keep their mouths shut when it comes to disagreeing with elected civilian officials. The result did not change the military equation, but it had a huge psychological impact: "Stan really doesn't quite get Washington," a colleague says, "and he was a little bit embarrassed. He took a huge gulp. Before London he was on transmit, after that he wasn't."

Take that Bill Galston! Anyway, read the whole thing here

Over at the Plank, Michael Crowley makes a pretty smart point in response to Nate Fick's op-ed in NYT arguing that, the US must persuade "Pakistan that militant groups within its borders pose as great a threat to Islamabad as they do to Kabul."

Why wouldn't Pakistan have at least as clear an idea of who poses a real threat to Islamabad as we do? Indeed, chances are they have a better grasp of this question than do policymakers in Washington. . . I sometimes wonder whether we're trying to convince Pakistan of something we want them to believe is true --but which in fact is not true enough to make them pursue the policies we're advocating in our own interests.

My what a novel concept; namely that Pakistan has actual agency in its foreign policy decision-making no matter how much pressure the US puts on the Pakistani government to crack down on the Quetta Shura.

Finally, I find myself in the odd position of defending Woodrow Wilson against Matt Yglesias's charge that "he doesn’t seem to me to have been much of a president" and that he doesn't deserve to be highly ranked among the nation's great presidents. Now granted Wilson was a terrible racist, stubborn as a mule, idealistic to a fault and he really screwed the pooch on that whole League of Nations thing. Also, he did seem to have some issues with civil liberties, but then so did this guy.

But there is something odd about progressives dumping on a guy who created the FTC, passed the first graduated income tax, the Clayton Anti-Trust act and established the Federal Reserve. Wilson passed all sorts of labor laws including the Child Labor Law and the 40-hour work week, lowered tariffs and from US foreign policy standpoint spearheaded the United Nations and the gradual acceptance of self-determination as an international right (even if as Matt suggests his implementation was  a bit off).  But above all he created the very idea of an activist, reformist presidency and laid the groundwork, legislatively, for the progressive welfare state that would come to dominate 20th century America. The whole idea of using government in a pro-active way to ameliorate the cruelties of an unfettered free market was born, legislatively, during Wilson's presidency.

I am surely not going to defend Wilson's racism that was not necessarily of the era, but actually worse; or his screw-ups on foreign policy, and one could certainly make the argument that his progressive agenda wasn't as heartfelt as say this guy's, but considering the generally mediocre quality of most American presidents, top ten seems about right. After all he probably deserves a higher ranking than this guy.

UPDATE: Matt has responded with this snarky observation, "Michael Cohen thinks Woodrow Wilson’s white supremacy was a small price to pay for stepped-up labor market regulation." That would be funny if I actually wrote that.

But arguing that Woodrow Wilson should be judged largely by his virulent racism is sort of like arguing that FDR should be judged for interning Japanese civilians, packing the Supreme Court and basically dragging his feet on civil rights in return for Southern acquiescence to his legislative agenda.  Now granted FDR was a better president and certainly a better man than old Woodrow Wilson so it's not a completely apt comparison, but still.

It's hard to defend a president like Wilson (and you know I'm deep down the the rabbit hole on a Friday evening when that's what I'm doing) and it's pretty hard to fathom the notion that someone with as retrograde views as he had on race could be considered a progressive champion, but as another often highly ranked president once said, facts are stubborn things. Progressives who dismiss Wilson simply because of his racism are not really giving his presidency its due or fully assessing his impact on American politics - and progressivism - properly. And Wilson's impact was about more than just labor market regulation.

FWIW, this also gets to another pet peeve of mine - presidents jsut aren't that good. We've only had two or three great ones - Lincoln, FDR and Washington. A handful of good to pretty good ones - Ike, Teddy, Jefferson, LBJ. A couple of overrated ones - Truman, Reagan and JFK. A lot of mediocre and lousy ones.  And a few horrible ones - W, Buchanan, Johnson and Harding. And even the good to great ones have some knocks against them. Conversely even Nixon had some pretty positive aspects to his presidency . . . but then again there was that whole invasion of Cambodia/defiling the Constitution thing. Even Abraham Lincoln was rumored to have sold poisoned milk to children.

So against that motley collection, Wilson's not all that bad.


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