Thursday, September 22, 2016

War and the American PresidencyWar and the American Presidency by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"The war on Iraq meant an overwhelming diversion of attention, resources, troops, and military might from the war on terrorism."

War and the American Presidency (2004) is one of the last works by the famed historian, two-time winner of both Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. He states in the Foreword that the aim of his book is to investigate "the relationship between the Iraq adventure and the national past," yet the finished work offers more and - at the same time - not quite as much as the author promises.

The first chapter presents a brief history of the American doctrine of unilateralism in foreign policy and its connections to the isolationist tendencies always popular in this country. The so-called Bush Doctrine (G.W. Bush) and its consequences are investigated in the chapter entitled Eyeless in Iraq. Mr. Schlesinger suggests that the doctrine - which amounts to relying on preventive war rather than on containment and deterrence - decisively contributed to the failure in containing terrorism. The author then returns to one of his favorite research topics - the concept of "imperial presidency" that he introduced with his well-known book under that very title - and points out to similar aspects of the W's presidency. The chapter contains some hilarious material about quite likely the most incompetent Attorney General in the history of this country, John Ashcroft, but the author also offers quite serious discussion about the Patriot Act.

The final four chapters of this short book seem a little disconnected from the previous material and they function better as separate essays. The author asks "whether a democratic people has a moral obligation to terminate dissent when the nation is at war." The answer, based on American history, is a resounding No, but I wish the author spent more time on investigating the meaning of patriotism. Chapter 5, How to Democratize American Democracy, where Mr. Schlesinger characterizes the American electoral system as a "subversion of democracy" and suggests its technical improvements, only marginally belongs in the book. On the other hand, the next chapter, about the future of democracy, offers insights worth of a much deeper examination than the author is willing to provide: he suggests that religious fanaticism is the "breeding place for the greatest current threat to civilization, which is terrorism."

The book was published a bit too early for the author to notice perhaps even a greater threat to democracy - the emergence of Internet and the consequent devaluation and polarization of information. The last chapter - after the author debunks some basic tenets of Marxism - offers a perspective on "inscrutability of history," and makes an important point that history is indeed inscrutable, but only in the short run.

Other than the lack of consistent focus the book suffers from occasionally incomplete reasoning as evidenced, for instance, by missing connections between anecdotes and stories from the past and the categorical conclusions that the author offers. I am enumerating the weaknesses that I perceive, but - of course - this is a highly recommended work, a must read for everybody interested in history and philosophy of politics. Also, perhaps unfortunately, I am a relativist when rating books and I use tougher criteria for authors who had written great books before. Thus, if this were a work of a fresh Ph.D. in political history, it would likely warrant four stars. I do not believe that as the work of a highly celebrated author, this book deserves such enthusiasm.

Three and a quarter stars.

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