Robert McNamara's life may illuminate contemporary tragedy. Just weeks before McNamara died, President Obama pressured reluctant Democrats (kudos to Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree for resisting) to approve a strange hybrid coupling of Afghanistan war funds with billions for the International Monetary Fund.
This was war funding paired with a deceptive offering to the gods of peace, a resume of McNamara's career. This ultimate war technocrat morphed into a World Bank president. In the latter role he employed global financial institutions as the velvet glove to complement the iron fist of military power.
Today, we lurch from one quagmire to another. Echoes of the domino theory and Viet Cong fearmongering can be heard as this president prepares us for his war. He assures us: "We are not in Afghanistan to dictate its future. We are in Afghanistan to confront a common enemy that threatens the United States, our friends and allies." All we are missing now are McNamara's kill ratios and body counts.
Even the mainstream media detect reason for caution. The New York Times has reported that the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban are burying their differences in response to U.S. military escalation. In addition, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argues that the most important factor behind the resurgence of the Taliban is the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan.
As for the current power of the Taliban, Middle Eastern scholar Juan Cole pointed out: "They have no air force, no artillery, no tanks. They are just small bands."
As in Vietnam, the U.S. supports reactionaries in order to prevail in the conflict it fanned. Cole points out: "The U.S. has [installed] a fundamentalist government which is rolling back rights of women through Shiite personal status law." The wife needs the husband's permission to leave home and can't refuse demands for sex.
Even in retreat, McNamara hardly modeled genuine penitence, which involves abrogating some power and wealth. His World Bank fought poverty by making unprecedented loans to Latin America, leaving nations deeply in debt and with very unequal social systems. U.S. capitalists profited. When world oil prices skyrocketed in the '70s, he lent more money - with harsh restrictions preventing government aid to the poor.
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Obama now gives the secretive IMF money to bail European bankers. Western European central bankers, their own economies floundering, are unwilling to take the political risk of aiding Eastern Europe. Obama is rejecting the difficult but potentially more rewarding task of U.S.-European collaboration on bigger joint stimulus packages, international banking regulation and reform of the IMF. He aids bankers through the IMF elite even as the European economy stagnates.
If there is a lesson in McNamara's life, it is one I borrow from Amherst College professor Tom Dumm: "The United States is facing a decline, as is inevitable for imperial power. [How] that decline is to be addressed
needs to be at the heart of this presidency."
Obama's rhetoric is softer than Bush's, but he evades the requirements of habeas corpus and opposes efforts to examine abuses of the Bush "terror war." Dumm reminds us that every modern president has committed major violations of the Constitution. "These have been connected to foreign policy, but they are also implicated in the politics of globalization and the Cold War. Presidents felt frustrated either by statutory constraints, or by the slowness of Congress to approve, or by the need to wave bloody flags in order to get Congress to move.
"We believe in the Constitution, and we believe in the special fate of America. But we've not necessarily been well served by either belief during the past half-century. Obama may need to imitate another great leader who has managed the decline of an imperial power, without destroying the world. Mikhail Gorbachev led the Russian people past a system of government that no longer could be imagined to serve them."
With Dumm, I believe that the U.S. needs to learn a little humility. It must question its sense of itself as special, acknowledge that its democracy is flawed and archaic, that it has played a major role in causing turmoil in the Middle East and finally that the Washington consensus it seeks to impose on others damages not only them but even many of its most vulnerable citizens.