In recent days I have been occasionally breathtaken (a modest neologism meaning, pretty obviously, to have one’s breath metaphorically taken away) by things I have read in the newspapers. This is not particularly uncommon in my life, but there have been a rash of such occasions lately, caused, I suspect, by holiday leave schedules and the need for editors to throw something into print, even into their lead features, as in above-the-fold, right. Four items stick to memory at the moment, and they exhibit a common quality that will be made clear to you, dear reader, anon.
First, last week, the New York Times ran an above-the-fold, right headline piece about the wealth defense industry. It revealed to readers that very rich people, but not just merely rich people, can avail themselves of ways to avoid paying taxes on very large sums of money. How so? Because, while it may cost $1 million or more to buy the services available, that investment repays itself dozens of times over in benefits. The article quoted Jeffrey Winters of Northwestern University, someone that TAI featured in its fairly frequent and, I would contend, incisive coverage of this topic already years ago.
So to me this feature, despite its admirable level of detail, counted as just another BFO (that’s “blinding flash of the obvious” for those of you unaware of the meaning of this particular pseudo-acronym). Of course, I’m not the only reader of the newspaper, and I realize that other readers may not be aware of this “news”, so I don’t begrudge the Gray Lady for running the piece as an off-normal peak front-page feature. On the contrary: I’m glad to see the establishment’s liberal flagship increasingly willing to run stories that piss off the advertisers in its special fashion and holiday gift advertising copy. If the NYT’s editors want to tease the hometown plutocrats and other corporate fat cats from time to time, who am I to complain? At least it diverts them temporarily from their obsession with their own and other people’s designer genitals.
But the essay drew no links to pre-primary presidential politics. There is only one candidate who is trying, in his own intellectually monomaniacal and disappointingly vague way, to draw attention to this sort of thing, and that’s Bernie Sanders. But is Senator Sanders mentioned in the piece? No, he is not. That might have annoyed darling Hillary. So no dots connected here.
Second, there was a feature, this time in the Washington Post, about the ISIS phenomenon redrawing the map of the Middle East. It warned, notably through several quotes from Fawaz Gerges, a popular and personable LSE academic, that defeating ISIS would not end the violence in the Levant, but only reshape it as new forces contend to fill the vacuum left by two collapsed and irreparably destroyed states.
He’s right about this, of course, as any reader of this column has known for some years—specifically, that it’s the artificially imposed Westphalian “nation-state” units themselves that are decaying and de-institutionalizing, causing the regional state system (often erroneously termed the “Sykes-Picot system”) to fall apart, and not the other way around, as is commonly (mis)understood. And again, I don’t mind the story’s having appeared, because a lot of people, not least in the risk-averse bowels of the U.S. government, still think that the solution to the problem lies in putting Syria and Iraq back together again, just as they were before the vaunted “Arab Spring.” That even applies to some Sunni Iraqis, as the article noted, who don’t like the spate of proposals in the air suggesting that some kind of Sunnistan or Sunni Regional Government be formed in a redrawn Middle East. Some of them still feel the lingering glow of minoritarian Sunni domination of Iraq and dream of its restoration. They have their own kind of trouble connecting new dots in an onrushing reality. That domination was destroyed by a very poorly planned U.S.-led invasion of Iraq beginning in March 2003. Does the article mention this? Nope. No dots connected here either.
Third in line is an article from just the other day, in the New York Times, on how jihadi organizations are swarming all over North Africa, using in particular ungoverned spaces in Libya as launch and refuge points. There was nothing much new in the article, although yet again a lot of the details—about the big-time smuggling that finances these groups, for example—had to be new to readers who have not been paying much attention to these kinds of things, and that would likely be most readers, since these are not phenomena that appear to impinge upon most people’s daily lives.
The larger point, however, is this: Why is Libya ground zero for the phenomenon being described in the article, just as Libya has been ground zero as launching point for much of the swell of asylum immigration into Europe last year (alas, a datum not mentioned in the article)? Because the Obama Administration, against the advice of the then-Secretary of Defense and all the members of the Joint Chiefs, started a war there in March 2011 that shattered the fragile shell of a state that kept the place more or less in one piece.
Is this core fact mentioned in the NYT article? Barely, not by name, and only in passing. But that is better than par for this particular course. This war that we and our allies started is rarely if ever mentioned, for example, as key relevant background in the ridiculous and transparently partisan witch-hunt about the Benghazi incident of September 11, 2012. Everyone seems happy with the ambient amnesia, the Democrats because it’s embarrassing and the Republicans because it’s even more embarrassing. Most of the Republican witch-hunters in this case seem congenitally incapable of imagining any wayward use of U.S. military power that could create more problems than it solves, because admitting that would put a real burden on easy resort to their kneejerk response to any apparent national security problem: send the Marines, or at least the Special Forces guys. For these special reasons, then, Libya takes the cake for unconnected dots.
Fourth and finally for now, the New Year’s Day Washington Post big headline—above the fold, right—read as follows: “Obama’s big push on ISIS strategy.” Now, if you don’t bother to read the article, the headline would suggest that the President is rethinking, fine-tuning, advancing, detailing, updating, or is in some other way focused on actual strategy matters. The article makes clear that this is not the case. On the way to Asia on Air Force One this past month, it seems, the President berated his aides for not doing a better job of marketing and spinning the “strategy” as is. As the President’s post-Bernardino speech made clear, his view is that there is nothing wrong with the strategy and that it is working. But the criticisms have been withering, and this is what bothers our not-always-thick-skinned Commander-in-Chief. So who took point on this new effort, according to the article? Well, of course, the irrepressible Ben Rhodes did, he of the creative writing degree, long since risen from chief speechwriter to the post of Deputy National Security Advisor.
Maybe the President is right. Maybe all that U.S. Levantine strategy needs to prove its worth is persistence on the government’s part and patience on our part. The strategy is getting a boost, unbidden in the original sketch, from a post-November 13 French effort: French aircraft, based in Jordan, whacked oil-related targets around Raqqa the other day. That raises anew an awkward question for the Administration: Why did it take so agonizingly long for U.S. aircraft to hit such obvious targets as tanker trucks engaged in “illicit” cross-border oil sales that pumped an estimated 45 percent of the Islamic State’s revenues into its coffers? It did this only after nearly a year of a weirdly feckless air campaign.
Still, as a strategy goes, the President’s may at any rate do less harm than one that would send tens of thousands of U.S. troops to seize Raqqa and Mosul without having a clue as to what we might do with those cities after we took them. When over the years I have criticized the President’s strategic thinking, or lack thereof, I have tried to do it in a calm, objective, non-partisan, and non-ad hominem fashion. I don’t hate Barack Obama and I don’t pretend that presidential decisions about such matters are ever obvious or easy. But, as I have noted over the years, there is a repeating sort of tic displayed by this White House that is both curious and sort of alarming—and this New Year’s Day headline brought it squarely into focus.
Some have referred to this tic as “the permanent campaign”—in other words, the strong penchant to focus not on things as they actually are but on how they appear politically, on optics over substance. (This is not entirely new as a worry; during the Bush Administration someone inside the White House once famously chided a journalist for being stuck in a reality-based world.) This White House, however, is inordinately full of political aides left over from campaigns who have acquired substantive de facto authority in areas they really know very little about. Valerie Jarrett is the poster child for the type, but she is hardly alone in that category. It’s as if someone cloned a Democratic version of Karl Rove. Fred Kaplan’s useful Foreign Affairs essay “Obama’s Way” refers to this tic in the context of the “Assad must go” remark from September 2013. On the basis of his many interviews, Kaplan concludes that the purpose of the White House spinning here was to get the President “on the right side of history” on the cheap—to make him look good in a circumstance where he would not need to actually do anything to appear statesmanlike and visionary. And he’s right, on this point anyway.
There is another way, however, to describe this tic. Some cultural anthropologists use the phrase “votive act” to describe a verbal behavior that is meant to substitute for, or be the functional equivalent of, an actual behavior (in the sense of doing something we commonly understand as impinging on physical reality in one way or another). The term is Latinate and comes proximately from the vocabulary of Christian prayer, and it is often accompanied by the noun “candle,” as in votive candle. It means a verbal statement with ritual power that is offered, given, undertaken, performed, or dedicated in fulfillment of, or in accordance with, a vow. The lighting of the candle symbolizes that such a statement is about to be offered.
The concept long predates Christianity, of course. There is in the Hebrew Bible the Nazarite vow, which is a textbook case of a votive act. The ancient Greeks had a word for the same concept, tama, which has carried over into the rites of the Greek Orthodox Church (instead of candles they use little metal decorated icons). The basic idea goes back much further, into the origins of word magic: the belief that if someone knows the name of something, he or she has power over it. This mystical dimension of language manifests itself in many ways in religion, as with the first sentence of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word.”
That is testimony to the depth at which this linkage lies within human culture, and apparently within the human psyche. Note that children everywhere regularly demonstrate the belief that simply saying that something has been or will be done is tantamount to the actual doing of it. Alas, however, sometimes adults do this too.
And further alas, for reasons we will not go into here, some cultures are more prone to such behavior than others. One cultural anthropologist down at Duke, William M. Reddy, pointed out going on two decades ago, as did others before him, that the prevalence of votive acts in non-religious frames—in other words, in seemingly ordinary life—differs from place to place, and from time to time in any given place. There is or can be such a thing, in other words, as an historical ethnography of emotions. Reddy calls a votive act an “emotive”—but it’s really the same thing with a jargony academic twist. (See William M. Reddy, “Against Constructionism: The Historical Ethnography of Emotions,” Current Anthropology, June 1997.)
Now, Reddy doesn’t come right out and say it—though others did back in the days before Saidian anti-Orientalism and other forms of stifling political correctness made doing so seem impolite—but premodern cultures, and premodern pockets of population within post-Age of Reason societies, are more prone to votive acts in everyday life than, say, post-Renaissance Western cultures. In these latter cultures the causal lines between intentions, actions, and outcomes have become more or less universally acknowledged, at least among adults, and have created near-universal expectations of reciprocity in acknowledging these connected dots.
What does this have to do with a New Year’s Day article in the Washington Post set on Air Force One? The article illustrates this President’s and this White House’s unusual penchant for votive acts in high office. From the very start of the Administration one got the impression that a great foreign policy speech would, in the minds of the principals and the aforementioned speechwriter, be self-implementing. Declare in Cairo that America is not at war with Islam, that we’re engaging our adversaries and putting old, unnecessary conflicts behind us, and poof! If one closes one’s eyes and yearns hard enough for these things to happen, they will just happen. (This too is not entirely novel, of course: Remember Kellogg-Briand, for example?)
It is easy to sympathize at least a little with this penchant, because actually using the clattering, clunking, and unfathomably complex apparatus of the U.S. government to govern is very hard, and arguably getting harder all the time. Besides, if what you really care about is raising campaign money, getting yourself and your ideological kin elected and re-elected, and focusing on what you define as domestic fairness (read: redistribution) issues, then concentrating on the optics of national security issues instead of their reality, short of just a few truly vital ones, serves well enough for the purpose that is really to hand most of the time.
We used to amuse ourselves a few decades ago by quoting back into English a Russian Cold War “people’s” witticism: “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.” We thought it was wryly funny, because it contained more than a grain of truth. Well, now we have a new manifestation of a similar wit, to wit: We, in the Obama Administration, pretend to actually do good things (as opposed to merely packaging words, in grand speeches and in grandly promoted but vacuous or one-sided, Potemkin-style agreements—with Iran, with Cuba, with the Burmese generals, with multitudes in Paris over climate change), and you pretend to believe us. In other words, we in government will but rarely and reluctantly undertake difficult, uncertain, and dicey efforts to connect our world of ideas, which is rich and well populated, with the world of extant reality, and you in the sympathetic mainstream press will not strain to connect the dots revealing same. But how funny is that, really? Not so much.
If the source of this behavior is a self-interested political tic, one that is calculated and self-aware, that’s one thing. Genuine leadership is not overly interested in optics or popularity or “legacy,” but rather in seeing to the longer-term good of the community; if we lack such leadership today it’s not remotely rare in our experience. But—and it’s a dot that I am reluctant to connect—if it is a revenant of a pre-modern addiction to word magic, that would be something else again. That would not be funny at all.