At some point, we discover that the course of our lives has been molded either by reactions against our upbringing, or by imitations of it, or, most commonly, by some mixture of the two. This “imprinting” is indelible. There’s no escape.
As parents, for instance, we tend to “fight the last war,” trying especially hard not to repeat any behavior by our own parents that we remember unfavorably. A personal example follows, slight but telling. Circa 1970, my mother became an early crusader against screen time. One day, when I was around nine, she imposed a television allowance. My limit was one hour on weekdays and two hours on weekends.
My mother made it clear that breaking this rule was not an option, and if I did, she would know. My mother could wield a ferocious temper, and, accordingly, I followed her restriction precisely and without question or complaint. But I hated the rule. I don’t know how long the restriction lasted, but I remember very well the joyful day my mother ended it.
It was freedom! I no longer had to make painful choices between “The Munsters” and “The Addams Family” or “I Dream of Jeanie” and “Gilligan’s Island.” I could watch everything. And I did. My mother’s imposition of a restriction had made television watching all the sweeter for me.
My own children were born in 1988, 1990, and 1993, and came of viewing age perfectly aligned with the second golden age of Disney movies and the VCR. Our favorites were “The Little Mermaid,” “The Lion King,” and “Aladdin,” and we allowed our children (and ourselves) unlimited screen time to watch anything Disney and soon most anything else. We did have some age appropriate restrictions, although as soon as we determined that a TV show or movie was appropriate for our eldest, then we allowed the younger two to watch it. We were very loose censors.
This benign neglect culminated with our five year old, having watched the Austin Powers movies, telling his kindergarten teacher that a monster in a children’s book “looked just like ‘Fat Bastard’.”
(Clip at the end for anyone sadly not yet familiar with the Austin Powers oeuvre.)
For better or worse, we are now a family that consumes a gluttonous amount of television. After recently watching and liking “The Sting,” one of our children declared that they were going to systematically watch all iconic movies starring Paul Newman. My reaction: Great idea!
These thoughts about television came to me when I was thinking about President Biden’s foreign policy. It’s a winding road between the topics, but not a long one. The shortcut is the famous quote below from John Maynard Keynes:
“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”
If he’d had children, Keynes might have added something about the behavior of one generation of parents haunting the next, but that would have been anachronistic since “parenting” hadn’t yet been invented in the 1930s.
Rather, Keynes was pointing out how old and even forgotten ideas surreptitiously and often malevolently haunt great tides in current events.
An old, malevolent idea that haunts the foreign policy of the Democratic party, including that of the Biden Administration, is the accusation/assumption that Democrats are weak on foreign policy in contrast to Republicans. That idea started with the canard that in the late 1940s, the Truman Administration “lost China” to Communism by failing to give sufficient support to the Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War. Never mind that Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist faction was outmatched in every military and political respect by Mao’s Communist faction. (Besides, it was silly to think that China was ours “to lose.”)
This so-called “loss” was followed by the Russians becoming a nuclear power and Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy going on his “witch hunt” for Communist spies in the State Department. It was a time of “naming names,” the “Blacklist,” and the terror of the House Un-American Committee. Republicans soon discovered that accusing Democrats of being soft on Communism was an effective political strategy. In return, Democrats discovered they needed to appear tough on Communism.
So when the Democratic administrations of Kennedy and Johnson pursued and escalated the war in Vietnam, the historical backdrop of those political accusations and stereotypes played a significant role. Eisenhower could warn of the threat of the “military-industrial complex” because he was a WW2 hero and a Republican. Nixon could open up diplomatic relations with China because he too was Republican and his past frenzied anti-communist credentials were impeccable. But Kennedy and Johnson couldn’t risk letting the Communist dominoes fall in Southeast Asia.
Certainly, one can find counter examples of Democratic administrations seeking peaceful solutions to conflicts. But it was under Republicans–––GW Bush and Reagan––– that we won the Cold War and under Bush the younger that we launched our wars on terror.
Obama’s foreign policy is an interesting case, although it’s too early to assess his record. But my sense is that his decisions were dominated by a struggle between a rational calculation of American interests vs. the still potent historical fear of appearing like a weak Democrat.
If it’s too early to assess Obama’s record, then of course it would be foolish to make any conclusions about Biden’s record. That said, I am convinced that Biden is haunted, whether he realizes it or not, by the history of perceived Democratic weakness. And that haunting fear may explain the Biden Administration’s failure, pre-Ukrainian war, to try for a diplomatic solution. I believe Biden thought that any concession to Russia, whether accepted or not, whether it prevented war or not, would have looked like Democratic weakness. And this fear may also explain why Biden has been so eager to support Ukrainian hopes of a complete victory over Russia.
In a past post, I’ve quoted the excerpt below from a 2016 Atlantic interview of Obama by Jeffrey Goldberg, but it’s worth repeating.
Obama’s theory here is simple: Ukraine is a core Russian interest but not an American one, so Russia will always be able to maintain escalatory dominance there.
“The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-nato country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do,” [Obama] said.
I asked Obama whether his position on Ukraine was realistic or fatalistic.
“It’s realistic,” he said.
While one can never, ever, ever dismiss the effect of domestic politics on even the weightiest of presidential decisions, in this case, I think that the historical thread that you suggest is one of the less important of the many variables that affected the decision made by each the three men. In the case of Kennedy – an international geopolitical environment that both produced and resulted in Soviet encroachment in Germany and Cuba, Kennedy having been “pushed around” by Khrushchev in Vienna, and the resumption of Soviet nuclear testing probably had a much more direct influence on his decision. Johnson certainly could have had politics on his mind but was likely much more concerned about his place in history, “I won’t be the first American president to lose a war”. In Biden’s case, I would argue that the debacle in Afghanistan and the PRC eyeing Taiwan were the more immediate influences. But all of this takes a back seat to the Fat Bastard reference! Thanks for that! Next, “molé mole, mole!”
Do you think there’s any chance that the botched Afghanistan withdrawal has anything to do with Biden’s stance on Ukraine? I’m not dismissing the relationship between Democrats and Russia, and I know Trump was ready to get troops out of Afghanistan, too. But, Biden has certainly made himself look tough when it comes to Russia. (Although, I personally worry that he’s not doing enough.)