Welcome to Quadrant Online | Login/ Register Cart (0) $0 View Cart
April 01st 2009 print

Claudio Veliz

George Bush and History’s Croakers

The Duke of Wellington thought that “croaking” was the second-worst obstacle faced by the British army he led to victory during the protracted 1808–1814 Peninsular War; the worst was the political partisanship of some of the generals sent by London to serve under him either as a reward for services or as a harmless rebuke meted to aggravating, but otherwise socially or politically invulnerable personages in uniform (first prize, one week in Spain; second prize, two weeks in Spain). He wrote with feeling to the Prime Minister, “I only beg of you not to send me any violent party men. We must keep the spirit of party out of the army, or we shall be in a bad way indeed.” [1]

They certainly were, and the badness of the way was compounded when partisan petitioners and patronage seekers went forth preceded and followed by a croaking obbligato. “Croaking” was the double-barrelled onomatopoeic witticism (vastly more clever and polite than “Pommie bastard” or “Damn Yankee”) first used by Wellington to describe the despondent, defeatist grumbling, moaning, rumour-mongering enmity of too many of the island’s intelligentsia. These croakers, like Shelley, Byron, Leigh Hunt and Hazlitt, shared with the aristocratic habitués of Lady Holland’s salon and with the Radical Whig opponents of the government a blinkered admiration for what they saw as the titanic Napoleonic effort to defend, perfect and extend the exemplary libertarian bequest of the French Revolution. [2]

Such croaking was dismissive of the “Sepoy” general whose only battlefield experience had been gained in India and who was now challenging Napoleon’s towering military genius, but it was mostly driven by a blinding contempt of the Prime Minister ultimately responsible for conducting what the croakers considered to be an immoral, unnecessary and doomed war against their beloved France. It is fair to add that the Holland House poets, dandies and Radical Whigs, who seldom resisted the temptation of describing the British government as tyrannical whilst praising the freedoms enjoyed across the Channel, would have been hard put to discover in Britain anyone performing the tasks of Minister of Police with the zeal and ferocity of Joseph Fouché, who did it with legendary efficiency and virtually without interruption first for the early revolutionaries, then for Robespierre and the Terror, for the Directorate, and finally and most impressively for Buonaparte himself who, imperial tongue possibly very much in Corsican cheek, rewarded his political sleuthing by elevating him to the very un-republican status of Duke of Otranto.

On learning that the Bastille had fallen, a youthful Charles James Fox, the great Whig parliamentarian, declared it to be “the greatest event since the beginning of the world”, possibly an overenthusiastic response that subsequent developments helped somewhat to temper. Other Whigs and Radicals remained loyal to a Napoleonism that Andrew Roberts (in Napoleon and Wellington) rightly describes as a form of political religion that continued well into the new century supporting the Corsican Emperor as the embodiment of the highest ideals of the French libertarian revolution.

Such devotion often reflected ideological commitments of varying importance, but there were instances in which the evidence suggests antecedents of a more personal nature. Lord Byron’s Napoleonic proclivities probably owed much to his upbringing by a doting mother whose admiration for the French Revolution he echoed and translated into an adoration of Buonaparte, the “soldier of the republic”, whose bust he famously kept in his rooms at Harrow, often defending it with his fists from patriotic schoolboys. His fervour did not abate with age and until the very end of the Napoleonic War, together with other friendly luminaries such as Shelley and Hazlitt, he “continued to hope that his Bonaparte. ‘mine Héros de Roman,’ would thrash them all” preventing a return to “the dull, stupid old system”. [3]

As for Lady Holland, the unrivalled grande dame of Whiggery whose wealth, wit, beauty, and social and political connections sustained one of the more influential English salons and who deserves abundantly the posthumous accolade of begetter of the latter-day affectation that Tom Wolfe so pithily dubbed “radical chic”, her political radicalism can be traced back to a Parisian sojourn during her five-year Grand Tour, when she heard Robespierre harangue the National Assembly and remained impressed for life. When “The Incorruptible” himself was dragged to the guillotine, she transferred her allegiance to a revolutionary succession that eventually led to a sui generis English country house version of Napoleonism that served magnificently to castigate those who waged war against her favourite nation. Her loyalty and that of her friends and acolytes extended throughout the decades of the war and, Roberts correctly notes, occasionally “sailed close to outright treachery”. [4]

Of course the French, beginning with Fouché, knew and appreciated the implications of such devotion. During his musings in St Helena, Napoleon observed that when planning the invasion of England, perhaps like Hitler in 1940, he counted on finding enough local adherents among those devoted upper-class croakers “to effect a disunion sufficient to paralyse the rest of the nation”. Less amusing was his assumption that victory at Waterloo would have brought down the Tory government and put in its place Lady Holland’s peace-loving Whigs who would almost certainly have come to his assistance by opting for a negotiated armistice.

Throughout the sanguinary quarter-century of the Napoleonic Wars, the Corsican leader was at the helm of the French state and very much in charge of the Grande Armée; unlike the Duke of Wellington, whose appointment, reinforcements, supplies and orders reached him from London bearing the imprimatur of his King and his Prime Minister. Napoleon’s ultimate adversary (“take me to your leader”) during his fateful last years in power was not Wellington, but the British Prime Minister, Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool (to whom I shall not refer as Liverpool because of the potential mnemonic competition from football teams, noisy musical indulgences, UN cultural junkets, unusual accents and the like, but will call him Jenkinson, which is sufficiently unique, mildly bizarre and vastly more memorable).

When Jenkinson became Prime Minister following Stanley Perceval’s assassination in May 1812, he faced a formidable adversary in a Napoleon who still some weeks from the ill-fated invasion of Russia had achieved mastery over 44 million people and the greatest land mass ever reached by his empire, and by marrying Princess Marie Louise in the afterglow of Wagram had successfully consolidated the Austrian alliance. Jenkinson remained at 10 Downing Street for the next fifteen years until ill-health forced him to retire in February 1827. He was therefore the longest-serving prime minister in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, longer than Salisbury and Gladstone, longer than Churchill, Thatcher and Blair. Firmly resisting the temptation to gloat on his behalf, it is meet and fair and certainly worth more than a footnote to point out that, in Asa Briggs’s memorable description, it was Prime Minister Jenkinson’s “steady and continued exertion on a moderate scale” in the face of unpopularity and the opposition of socially impeccable croakers that ensured the political support and efficient provisioning of Wellington’s army during the harsh endgame years that from the battlefields of Salamanca to Waterloo finally brought down the Corsican leader. [5]

It is now abundantly clear that the French military debacle in the Peninsular War at the hands of Wellington and the legendary Spanish guerrillas marked the beginning of the end of Napoleon’s imperial enterprise. It is also clear that while the French invasion of Spain was welcomed by many of the ilustrados in the Spanish court and the intelligentsia, the overwhelming popular resistance was frequently led by village priests encouraging their flock to fight against what they regarded as a horde of French regicides and atheists marginally less acceptable than Wellington’s Protestant British army. The explosive national uprising of the unenlightened peasantry and urban working classes occurred without any prompting from the British, but there is no doubt that it played a crucial role in bringing about Napoleon’s catastrophic failure.

Rumours and intimations that these facts were true were not well received by the croakers in Westminster and Mayfair. Their acrimonious response confirmed Wellington’s concern with the negative effect that the abuse hurled against him and the Prime Minister could have on morale and the conduct of the war. The croaking opposition had the virtue of consistency, because the Radical Whigs had never agreed to go to war against the French, and until the very end refused to accept that Britain and her allies could possibly emerge victorious. When the news reached London of the crushing defeat inflicted by Wellington on the French army at Salamanca, Lord Castlereagh moved a vote of thanks in the House of Commons that was immediately opposed by Sir Francis Burdett, a leading Radical parliamentarian who refused to accept that there had been a British victory at all, let alone one worthy of celebration.

Even with the distance of two centuries Sir Francis’s vigorous intervention is intriguingly reminiscent of the obduracy of latter-day croakers who refuse to accept that, for example, anything positive can be said about President Bush’s military surge in Iraq, even when it helps to bring about free and peaceful national elections. Sir Francis asserted that “the results of [Wellington’s] campaign [have been] disaster and defeat” and invited the Commons to agree that “either lord Wellington was not entitled to the praise which the House was called upon to bestow, or the fault of our failure was attributable to the gross negligence and imbecility of the ministers of the crown”. A hefty brew, but not strong enough for Sir Francis, who added that Jenkinson’s policies were “calculated to engage [Britain] deeper in expense [in pursuit of policies] calculated to plunge the country, under the direction of the same persons [Jenkinson and Wellington] still deeper in a destructive and ruinous war”. Having further observed that after nineteen years of war (since 1793) “we were still as far from our object as ever”, the parliamentarian scoffed at the suggestion that Wellington had achieved a victory “over the moral feelings of the Spaniards”, adding the bizarre opinion that if proof of such a victory were forthcoming, which he doubted, it could only be because of the support that Wellington had given to the Spanish Inquisition.

These sentiments were echoed by George Ponsonby, the then leader of the Whig opposition in parliament, who argued, “It is useless to carry on further an unprofitable contest; it is useless to waste the blood and treasure of England for an unattainable object; it has been proved that the power of England was not competent to drive the enemy out of Spain”. Or, one is tempted to add, out of Baghdad or the Khyber Pass, bearing in mind the recent public statements of senior British and American military officers who echoed Ponsonby’s feelings by croaking plaintively about the dire prospect of what they regard as the doomed allied military campaign in Afghanistan.

The defeatism of the croakers was not attenuated in the months that followed. On September 1813, when the catastrophic French losses in Russia became generally known, Henry Brougham, another member of the Radical Whigs, specifically asked Thomas Creevey to record his confident prediction that before Christmas Wellington would be soundly defeated and forced to retreat from the Iberian peninsula. As late as April 28, 1815, seven weeks before Waterloo, Samuel Whitbread proposed a motion in parliament to stop further military involvement in a war in which the prospect of a British victory became “weaker by the day, while the chance of Napoleon every day grows stronger”, and only three weeks before Waterloo he voted against subsidising Britain’s allies for helping in a venture as “insane as the war against France”.

The news from the Belgian front found a mixed reception in London. Samuel Whitbread did not endure the ruin of everything he valued and defended throughout his very public life and committed suicide, but Earl Grey, the tea-drinking Whig grandee, felt able to inform a large audience at Brooks’s that he had received reliable intelligence that Napoleon had 200,000 soldiers available for a counterattack that would enable him to march on Brussels virtually unopposed.

Events proved otherwise and to their idol’s defeat in battle, the croakers and their intellectual heirs have had to add the sobering failure of their lofty libertarian ideals after two centuries of experimentation with five different republics not exempt from grievous civil strife and large numbers of casualties. Bearing in mind the absolute impossibility that anyone like Disraeli, in Britain, or Monash, in Australia, or Obama, in the United States, could have reached their high positions of responsibility in, say, France, or any other major European nation, it is gently ironic to note that liberty, equality and fraternity evidently have a better record of survival and enhancement in the English-speaking realm of the Wellingtonian croakers than among the republican heirs of Marat, Robespierre, Fouché and the great Corsican condottiero ultimately humbled by Jenkinson’s less than flamboyant “steady and continued exertion on a moderate scale”.

Waterloo inaugurated what has gone down in history as the ninety-nine-year peace between 1815 and the opening shots of the First World War in 1914. During these decades the world was afflicted by relatively minor international conflicts such as the Crimean War, the Franco-Prussian War and the Boer War, while the most sanguinary conflagration—the American Civil War—remained throughout a domestic tragedy. The particular mode of socially immaculate despondency, slanderous rumour-mongering and languid defeatism of the croakers that failed to make things really difficult for Wellington and Jenkinson did not vanish during these years, but had to wait until the great conflicts of the twentieth century to re-emerge in strength when some important military setbacks appeared justly or otherwise to find a plausible culprit in Winston Churchill, a leader at least as brilliant, intractable and abrasive as the Iron Duke.

There is much to choose from, but Churchill’s problem is best exemplified by referring to the mischievous distortions of the Gallipoli campaign favoured by anti-war activists who delight in describing it as yet another criminal exercise in futility for which he was deemed to be responsible and which added to his early reputation as an amateurish maverick. What these interpretations ignored was that the landing in the Dardanelles may have contributed, even if unintentionally, to the eventual allied victory over the Central Powers by tying down most of a recently modernised Turkish army using vast amounts of German military supplies, trained and led by large numbers of experienced German officers responsible also for the efficient reorganisation of the Turkish munitions factories and, most important of all, the formidable General Liman von Sanders and his staff who, not a trivial matter, commanded the defence of the Dardanelles. Had such human and material resources been available for deployment, say, in Flanders in 1915, one wonders whether the Central Powers would not have succeeded in breaking through and possibly even securing victory before the intervention of the United States. Of course this is a logically fallacious hypothesis contrary to the fact, but none the less intriguing for all that.

When Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940, after Neville Chamberlain’s resignation following the legendary Norway debate in the Commons, he was greeted by a croaking madrigal worthy of its Wellingtonian and Jenkinsonian antecedents. Lady Alexandra Metcalfe reflected what seemed at the time to be the general feeling among Conservatives when she confided, “I am terrified of Winston, the only thing to be said is, he is preferable to Lloyd George”. Not so, opined Nancy, the wife of Tory MP Tommy Dugdale, because “W[inston]C[hurchill] is really the counterpart of Goering [sic] in England, full of the desire for blood, ‘Blitzkrieg’, and bloated with ego and over-feeding, the same treachery running through his veins, punctuated by heroics and hot air”. [6]

Neatly summarising such respectable opinions, Mr Jay Llewellyn, another Tory MP, justified his scepticism to Lord Beaverbrook uttering three words, “Gallipoli—Narvik—Dunkirk” when in April 1941, Churchill sent 60,000 British troops to help defend Greece and, alas, those troops were soon evacuated under duress, adding Greece and Crete to a lengthening list of military reverses that did nothing to improve the Prime Minister’s standing among some of the more exalted members of his party. Much did go wrong before the tide turned at El Alamein; what remains a disconcerting fact is that while Churchill’s popularity with the public at large continued to rise impressively, the Conservative croaking went on sotto voce without interruption throughout the early months of the war when dire circumstances demanded either exceptional party loyalty or discipline, preferably both.

As late as July 17, 1940, on the eve of the Battle of Britain, Richard Austen (“Rab”) Butler, the then Chamberlainite MP, met accidentally with the Swedish ambassador Björn Prytz while walking in St James’s Park. In the conversation that ensued, which Prytz immediately described in a telegram to his government which was, not surprisingly, intercepted and deciphered by British intelligence, Butler was reported to have asserted that no “diehards”—code term for Churchill—would be permitted to interfere in the way of a compromise peace with Germany “if one was felt desirable”. To make matters absolutely clear, he added that “common sense and not bravado” (Churchill’s preferred style?) would be foremost if such a negotiated peace came up for discussion.

Four months later, on November 19, 1940, when German bombers had already killed more than 40,000 civilians, the National Liberal MP Sir Henry Morris-Jones scribbled in his diary that “several Members consider that we cannot get a victory over Germany, that the best we can expect is a stalemate”. As Andrew Roberts observes in his seminal work, Eminent Churchillians, this may have been the finest hour for the British people, but obviously not for some of their politicians. He further asserts with much authority that it was only in July 1941, when German bombing raids had been going on for almost a year, that for the first time since becoming Prime Minister, fourteen months before, “Churchill at last felt himself politically safe”. [7]

The 1940–41 croakers were an irritating obstacle to good government, but theirs was a short innings, partly because Churchill’s robust and inspiring leadership ensured the overwhelming support of the British public, and partly because the tide of war turned decisively in favour of the allies. President Harry S. Truman was less fortunate. While in office, he delighted his croakers by earning the sobering distinction of being the most unpopular president in modern American history, with record-breaking approval ratings hovering around 22 per cent which took decades eventually to correct.

The passage of time may not always heal, but more frequently than is popularly assumed it may help to temper passionate intensities by applying the soothing balm of facts to assist scholars and common sense for the benefit of the public at large. Something along these lines occurred with Truman’s reputation after he left the White House. Every recent ranking of the presidents of the United States includes Harry S. Truman among the ten most distinguished holders of that high office. Possibly the most prestigious such ranking is the one originally prepared by the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger in 1948 and 1962, and subsequently revised and improved by his son, the equally distinguished historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr, in 1996. At the very top of the ranking, the Schlesingers have two categories, of Great and Near Great Presidents. Only Lincoln, Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt are considered to be Great, but six make it into the Near Great category and this is where Harry S. Truman will now be found, rubbing shoulders with Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. This striking improvement is a reflection of the momentous circumstances that determined Truman’s imaginative, courageous and immediately unpopular decisions, which were subsequently justified decisively by historical developments, some of which owed not a little to the course of action impressed on his nation and the free world by the Missouri haberdasher.

Although lacking the formal academic or political credentials normally associated with expertise in foreign policy matters, Truman was nonetheless among the very first leaders to understand the nature of the Soviet challenge and to act accordingly. Responding to the mounting evidence of Soviet reluctance to abide by the Yalta agreements and especially to the well-organised attempts to force the countries of Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, into the communist camp, he expressed his characteristically forceful reservations to his Secretary of State, fellow Southern Democrat James Byrnes, many weeks before he received the now famous “Long Telegram” from George Kennan, confirming his worst fears. What followed partly explains the genesis of the Cold War, but for the purposes of this text a simple enumeration of the facts should suffice.

1. 1945–46. Systematic campaign to consolidate Soviet military and political domination over Rumania, Bulgaria and Poland.

2. Refusal to withdraw Soviet troops from Iran as stipulated in the 1942 tripartite agreement with Britain confirmed by Bevin and Molotov in 1945. Attempted communist coup in Iran in December 1945, shielded by Soviet troops.

3. February 1946. George Kennan’s “Long Telegram”.

4. March 1946. Winston Churchill, at President Truman’s invitation, delivers the famous “Iron Curtain” speech at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri.

5. March 1947. President Truman appears before a special session of both houses of Congress to announce the “Truman Doctrine”, offering American support to “free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressure”. He specifically decides to help Greece and Turkey respectively to defend themselves against domestic communist insurrection and external Soviet pressure.

6. June 1947. General George Marshall, Truman’s new Secretary of State, presents at the Harvard Commencement what became known as the Marshall Plan of economic assistance to aid the recovery of all the European nations, including the USSR and its communist satellites in Eastern Europe.

7. July 1947. Truman establishes the Central Intelligence Agency.

8. February 1948. Communist coup in Czecho-slovakia.

9. June–December 1948. Berlin blockade and airlift.

10. November 1948. Truman re-elected.

11. April 1949. The United States, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Great Britain, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway and Portugal found the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Greece and Turkey joined in 1952; West Germany in 1955).

12. November 1950. North Korea invades South Korea.

These decisions and initiatives defined the conflict that dominated the second half of the twentieth century. Possibly the most illuminating and briefest commentary on the fierce controversy they generated was offered by President Truman in his Memoirs. Referring to his 1947 “Truman Doc-trine” speech he wrote, “All over the world, voices of approval made themselves heard, while communists and their fellow travelers struck out at me savagely. The line had been drawn sharply.” [8]

It had indeed and today, with the perspective afforded by well over half a century plus the timely assistance of the Soviet archival material made accessible, albeit briefly, after the collapse of the communist regime, what appeared to be the case at the time has been abundantly confirmed: every one of the Truman initiatives listed above was anathema to the Soviet Union and its vast cohort of Lenin’s well-intentioned “useful idiots”, fellow travellers and agents of influence embedded in the opinion-shaping activities that had become the happy hunting ground for the activists of the newly created Cominform. Each one of these initiatives was rejected by the latter-day American croakers as a betrayal of the visionary direction that Roosevelt’s New Deal and the great military prowess achieved working shoulder to shoulder with the Soviet Union had led them to expect would be loyally followed by a Democratic presidency.

From the croakers’ vantage point, Truman appeared to be irremediably committed to the abandonment of the true American Dream intimated by Franklin D. Roosevelt and enthusiastically espoused by Eleanor Roosevelt, Henry Wallace and Claude Pepper and most attractively popularised in the Hollywood creations of Frank Capra, John Ford, Henry Fonda and other equally talented interpreters. Truman was worse than an adversary; he was regarded as a traitor to his party, to his people and, worse, to an international movement enjoying a fair amount of popular acceptance as it appeared to be constructing societies compatible with the one that moved Lincoln Steffens to declare, “I have seen the future and it works,” on his return from the USSR in 1921.

As it turned out, the croakers were wrong again and President Truman absolutely right in concluding that the vision that had swept Lincoln Steffens off his feet was not worth pursuing. More, he also perceived the true nature of the communist challenge and the best means to respond to it without damaging the institutional inheritance of freedom under the rule of law enjoyed by his own nation as well as the rest of the English-speaking world. It is now a matter of historical record to note how often the free world was subsequently presented with opportunities to appreciate the courageous statesmanship of Harry S. Truman, and the importance that the definitive clarity of his decisions had eventually in bringing the Cold War to a peaceful, civilised and immensely satisfactory conclusion.

Although over time croakers may have been more interested in humiliating their domestic rivals than in securing the triumph of a foreign adversary, they have also been disinclined to spare noses if faces could be taught a lesson. Most important, traditionally they have been proved wrong. Jenkinson and Wellington came out on top, not Napoleon and Fouché; a century later the winner was the unsound aristocrat Winston Churchill, not the Austrian socialist and nationalist; and as for the other socialists and their union, well, no more, but Harry S. Truman’s homeland continues to enjoy the time of day.

The same appears to be happening now before our eyes. The reverses sustained by the croaking tradition over the past two centuries may have left it able better to do battle, but, alas, still unable clearly to distinguish between its dissembling offerings and the truth. While not quite praying for another September 11, the croakers have enjoyed themselves hugely by spewing malevolent abuse and ridiculing George W. Bush’s presidential tenure as a scandalous failure for inventing an anti-Islamic war on terror that has left his country almost bereft of allies, universally afflicted by a tidal wave of anti-American feeling, and wallowing in the worst recession of the past half-century. These three endlessly repeated accusations and assertions invite closer examination. Not surprisingly when croaking is involved, this examination leads to the discovery of their fundamental incompatibility with the facts.

While there is no doubt that the international intelligentsia and the press have not abandoned their traditional anti-Americanism, it is not true that the United States is now bereft of friends and allies and painfully isolated presumably because of President Bush’s arrogant unilateralism, responsible generally for a disastrous foreign policy. The major European nations with which the United States co-operates closely in matters such as shared intelligence and co-ordination of anti-terrorist measures are France, Italy and Germany. In the past few months all three held national elections in which their relationship with the United States was for everyone to scrutinise and judge. All returned governments openly and effectively sympathetic to the central tenets of the Bush administration. Regardless of the complexities that normally qualify the foreign policy of sovereign nations (“Britain has no friends, only interests”), it is clear that the anti-Americanism of various opinion surveys, vociferous press attacks and vitriolic academic pronouncements notwithstanding, the German, French and Italian voters went freely to the polls and invited Frau Merkel, Monsieur Sarkozy and Signor Berlusconi to lead governments that with the understandable reservations characteristic of relations between free, distinct and democratic nations, remain none the less satisfied both with the level of consultation and with the tenor of American foreign policy especially as conducted by Dr Condoleezza Rice.

Equally telling is the fact that during the eight years of the Bush presidency the four major nations of the English-speaking world, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and the United States, have provided the core of support for the war on terror while continuing to make available the institutional context that guarantees that loud and occasionally distressingly irreverent domestic opposition to that policy can be freely expressed. To these considerations must be added the additional fact, especially important from an Australian vantage point, of a conduct of diplomatic matters that far from everywhere antagonising friends and foes as claimed by his detractors, has successfully consolidated an unprecedented period of harmonious relations with all the dominant powers in the Far East.

The distance between croaking assertions and reality is even greater in the alleged confrontation between the foreign policy and diplomacy of President Bush and the world of Islam.

On this particularly important aspect of the matter, croaking journalists and academics have unknowingly echoed the feats of their Wellingtonian and Churchillian ancestors by swallowing whole their own untruths disguised with thick dollops of pseudo-scholarly references more often than otherwise extracted from books they had not read and, if they had, failed to understand. It is fair to note that some such books have titles with legs and can travel fast and far. Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order is probably competing with Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man for the niche reserved in The Guinness Book of Records for the work most frequently bought and cited by people who did not read it. It is rare the journalist who fails to castigate Fukuyama for announcing that history ended a few months ago while also unwittingly making it clear that he has not read the book. Even rarer the academic croaker who having thumbed through Huntington’s book resists the temptation to use the “clash” as additional and scholarly proof that the declaration of war on terror was a foreign policy disaster which, echoing the very words used by Sir Francis Burdett when he joyfully announced the failure of Wellington’s campaign in the Peninsular War, was “attributable to the gross negligence and imbecility of ministers”, no doubt including Vice-President Cheney, Secretary Rumsfeld and Secretary Rice in addition to the President himself, who may have thought that they were chasing a handful of terrorists, but are now cowering inside Israel’s bunker devoid of regional support and plunged into a hopeless and messy struggle against a thoroughly enraged Islam. This is, of course, as all ex cathedra croaker pronouncements, as incorrect, inane and irresponsible as the tea-drinking Earl’s assurances that Napoleon had 200,000 warriors ready to inflict a final and devastating defeat on hapless Wellington.

There is no unified entity called “Islam”, largely for the same reason that there is no unified, monolithic entity called “Christendom”, but there are many Muslim countries heirs to various cultural traditions and institutions that a history of conquest has placed one next to the other in the shape of a huge crescent moon spanning the globe from the Kingdom of Morocco in the west to Indonesia and the Federation of Malaysia in the east. Of these—listed in geographical order—Morocco’s widely respected and sophisticated monarchy has been for many years acting decisively, occasionally with sobering severity, against Islamic terrorism. So has Algeria’s revolutionary regime, which like Morocco retains Islam as the state religion, but may be inching closer to what Kemal Ataturk had in mind than to any conceivable theocratic utopia dreamed up by Osama bin Laden. Next is Tunisia, from the very beginning of the conflict a crucially important and helpful ally in the War on Terror.

As for Libya, well, this is Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s own realm, where only a few years ago terrorists from Dublin to Bilbao, Bogotá and Mogadishu received expert training on how best to slaughter civilians. Not so today. The unusually astute and decisive Colonel Qaddafi perceived the changing circumstances and the likely outcome and promptly changed his mind. (As someone expressed it most memorably, “When the facts of the matter change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”) Now the training camps are crumbling in the sand, terrorists are out, tourists are in, and Colonel Qaddafi devotes his abundant energies to presiding over the African Union as self-proclaimed “King of Kings” and contributing op-ed articles for the New York Times.

Then there is Egypt, which like Algeria is an emphatically Muslim front-line friend and ally in the struggle against Islamic terrorism, but is also prudently inching its way towards outcomes that would have pleased Kemal Ataturk. Further on, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates are all enlisted in the struggle against Islamic terrorism, although some with the reservations that must be allowed to those who live alarmingly near to the more troubled regions of the conflict.

Then there are the four largest Muslim nations on earth, with governments clearly and effectively committed to waging war on terror: Indonesia, with 207 million Muslims; India, with 156 million; Bangladesh with 134 million, and Pakistan with 159 million. It is important to note that contrary to what the croakers would have us believe, Pakistan is overwhelmingly conscious of two facts, first that the country is fighting for survival against the Taliban onslaught, and second that its most loyal and helpful allies are in the English-speaking world.

Bearing in mind the overwhelming fact that it is virtually impossible to gauge the opinion of the public in countries waging war or under dictatorial regimes, it is still fair to assume that only part of the populations of Syria, Iran, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan are committed supporters of the Taliban, al Qaeda and their terrorist accomplices—possibly around 120 million, compared with the 856 million in the considerably large number of sovereign and legitimate governments that effectively have decided to side with President Bush at the very least by denying human or material supplies to those indulging in terrorist actions.

Croakers do not like such facts. They would prefer to be informed that the “surge” in Iraq is a total failure and that there are no Gunga Dins or Gurkhas available anywhere to help Highlanders hold the Khyber Pass. Although numbers are mostly irrelevant when addressing this kind of confrontation, it is salutary to observe that far from being orphaned of assistance and understanding among the Islamic nations, the urgencies of the struggle and the “steady and continued exertion on a moderate scale” impressed on the war by President Bush and his ministers have in fact brought about the efficient and principal assistance of the greatest number of Muslim nations ever to agree to support any international initiative even remotely comparable to the present War on Terror. This good success is all the more impressive given the additional fact that an important minority within each of these nations is either sceptical about the nature of the struggle or openly and violently opposed to any policy or initiative associated with the United States. In other words, as croakers are always happy to remind us, many people in these countries hate the globalising West generally and the United States in particular, but for one reason or another, sometimes involving the ballot box, they have thus far failed famously to generate legitimate governments prepared to align their respective nations with the perpetrators of the mass killings in Mumbai, Madrid, Bali, Buenos Aires, New York and Washington.

This is not a bad place to allow myself an indulgent note in passing. I met Professor Samuel Huntington in 1979, while teaching at Harvard. He kindly invited me to participate in his deservedly famous seminar and I was thenceforth presented with a continuing opportunity to meet and discuss things with him and his colleagues after I joined Boston University in 1989. Our last formal meeting was five years ago and, not surprisingly, much was said about the “clash” and related cultural issues.

A very mild disagreement surfaced on one aspect of the matter. He believed or perhaps only hoped that it should be possible for moderate Muslim statesmen and intellectuals to harness modernisation without necessarily becoming “Westernised” and therefore without offending fundamentalist pieties. I disagreed then, and now. As I see it, modernisation and Westernisation have become almost synonymous for two important reasons, first because both the concept and the practical implementation of what we understand as modernisation are creatures of the Western world in general and of the English Industrial Revolution in particular, and second because in our twenty-first century cultural transfers are so swift, unpredictable and ubiquitous that they have become virtually impossible to control.

In our recent past some enormously powerful regimes refused to accept this and made brutally determined efforts to keep the virtues of their folk unpolluted by the degenerate, inefficient, immoral and generally loathsome habits, artefacts and institutions associated with the process of Westernisation. The catastrophic consequences of the so-called “cultural revolutions” of Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Hoxha’s Albania, the Iran of the Ayatollahs, and the Soviet Union, are there even for the most obdurate croakers to consider at leisure. It cannot be done. In our modern times culture is not susceptible of being sliced into politically safe slivers for the closely supervised enjoyment of a grateful peasantry. Rather it resembles a tidal wave that overwhelms the ramparts with electric toothbrushes, skateboards, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, motor-cycles, penicillin and antibiotics, television sitcoms and baseball caps worn backwards. By broadcasting their exhortations over radio and colour television, zealous ayatollahs may unwittingly open the doors to invasion by computers, beauty contests, Wittgenstein’s philosophy, rock, pop and rap, violins, bassoons, soccer, the internet and the idea of freedom, pornography, gambling, the novels of Evelyn Waugh and the poetry of T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats.

Industrial modernity is not a political trap to homogenise lesser cultures, but a vibrant component of every contemporary culture; it does not belong to the West any more than the Industrial Revolution belongs to the English or opera to the Italians. It does not destroy its hosts, but is altered and enriched by their welcome. In some of this, not all, Sam Huntington and I chose amiably to disagree.

It is also possible that being very much a lifelong Massachusetts Democrat, Professor Huntington may have been prepared to grant Miss Nancy Pelosi, the current Speaker of the House of Representatives, the benefit of the doubt when she asserted that the current recession was “the terrible consequence of the ‘anything goes’ Bush administration, whose irresponsible non-regulation of financial institutions has led to this crisis”, an utterance of such monumental disingenuousness that together with Mrs Nancy Dugdale’s judgment on Churchill’s leadership suitability should have a guaranteed place among the great croaking untruths of all time.

Like most international matters of consequence, the current recession is not the result of a single cause, but responds to a multiplicity of factors less or more affected by the vagaries of the human condition. Not all these are of equal weight, but there are sound reasons to think that when full documentation is available to future historians, the role of the Democratic Party will be found to have been of definitive importance in erecting the “sub-prime mortgage” edifice the collapse of which triggered the current financial crisis. The evidence will also confirm that Miss Pelosi was throughout well informed about her party’s involvement in the cumulative decisions responsible for the debacle. Not surprisingly, given the melancholy fate of the entities that facilitated the deceptively inexpensive mortgages for low-income applicants, the paternity of the enabling legislation is now the subject of vociferous denials.

In my younger years newspapers never failed to produce good excuses for my father to remind me that while victory has a surfeit of progenitors, defeat is an orphan. This gentle offering of antique wisdom is helpful today to explain why the enthusiasm vanished with which only recently Massachusetts Democratic Congressman Barney Franks and Connecticut Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd were defending the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 against all manner of folk. It was not simply that they saw it as an enlightened proposal of financial affirmative action intended to make the “American dream” of home ownership come true for as many as possible regardless of race or ability to pay, but that they knew it to be the creature of their own Democratic Party, the direct heir to President Lyndon Johnson’s 1968 Fair Housing legislation and his decision to transform the Federal National Mortgage Association, established by Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1938, into the dynamic and well-funded Government-Sponsored Enterprise (GSE) now known famously as Fannie Mae joined in 1970 by its twin, Freddie Mac.

The work of the 1976 Housing and Mortgage Disclosure Act, sponsored by the legendary Wisconsin Democratic Senator William A. Proxmire, had indicated that Lyndon Johnson’s efforts notwithstanding, the problem of racial and financial discrimination in the availability of housing remained unresolved. The mortgages extended by banks continued to vary greatly from district to district, with the least favoured, or altogether excluded, inhabited predominantly by blacks and Hispanics whose various domestic virtues notwithstanding often found themselves between jobs, and if employed did not earn enough to pay a deposit or serve their debt, or if they did, were mostly disinclined to invest the time and energy required to keep the mortgaged properties in good order.

It was mainly with this anomaly in mind that the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act was passed, specifically to mandate “depository institutions to meet the credit needs of lower-income neighbourhoods” in the districts in which they operated and from which they derived most of their deposits. This Act was then joyfully signed into law by President Jimmy Carter on October 12, 1977, but as banks tended to remain unmoved by politically inspired exhortations to make their clients’ money available in the form of mortgages unlikely ever to be repaid, a number of revisions were subsequently aimed at strengthening the enforcement authority of the state regulators. It then became possible formally to deny a bank’s application to expand operations, consolidate branches or merge with other financial entities unless it fully complied with the requirements of the Act.

Under President Clinton, in 1999, this assessment became simply numerical, based strictly on the total number and amount of mortgages extended to applicants rated according to race, income level and neighbourhood; the bigger the amount mortgaged to the least credit-worthy applicants, the better for the bank’s prospects of being favourably viewed by the state financial regulators. The information on which these decisions were based was then made public and local organisations were encouraged to bring additional pressure to bear on those banks thought to be reluctant to comply with their public responsibility as defined by the 1977 Act, inaugurating a season of mutually agreed and beneficial blackmail. The bosses of local political machine organisations were eager to produce long lists of impecunious applicants that the banks were happy to oblige with generous mortgages that would ensure the retention and enhancement of their record of compliance with the 1977 Act.

Further to facilitate the process, a marriage of convenience was arranged between the “depository institutions” controlled by the 1977 Act, and the two now more than famous GSEs, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. These entities could not provide credit or mortgages, but were specifically deployed to purchase local mortgages, arrange them into attractive bundles and place them in the world market. This they could do competitively because they were required to hold only 2.5 per cent in capital reserves instead of the obligatory 10 per cent for private banks, they were exempt from Securities Exchange Commission regulations and received favourable rates of interest reflecting the implicit federal government guarantee of their operations. Most importantly, led kindly by the light of the Democratic Party’s creative commitment to financial affirmative action, they were encouraged to market all over the world mortgage bundles rated AAA without disclosing that neatly tucked inside were those notorious “toxic assets”, deeds and documents pertaining to dwellings that without duress no sane banker would have accepted as collateral for any form of credit whatsoever.

By the time the century came to a close, the social engineers of the Democratic Party had succeeded in erecting a palatial skyscraper of preferential finance and privileged regulation that sheltered well over two trillion United States dollars in securities and mortgages; five years later, their holdings reached four trillion, and five trillion by 2008 when they were responsible for almost half of all the mortgages issued in the United States, of which more than one trillion was made up of sub-prime toxic assets and other unacceptably risky loans.

The danger posed by the fragility of this immense flawed and ideologically driven financial scheme was not a closely guarded secret. As early as his April 2001 budget, President Bush noted that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had grown so large and vulnerable that their failure could cause “strong repercussions in financial markets, affecting federally insured entities and economic activity” beyond the housing sector. He proposed strictly to limit the size of their portfolios and place them under regulatory constraints similar to those under which private banks and financial institutions had to operate. Against these changes the two GSEs mounted a robust and well-funded lobbying campaign. Senator Dodd of Connecticut even threatened to mount a filibuster and Congressman Frank of Massachusetts argued lustily that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were “fundamentally sound” and described President Bush’s proposals as “inane”.

A year later the White House directed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to disclose details of their corporate governance and submit to an examination of their financial position which resulted, in January 2003, in a formal announcement that their financial results for the previous three years would have to be “restated”. Later that year, the Secretary for the Treasury, John W. Snow, testifying before the House Financial Services Committee, recommended that Congress enact legislation to create a new federal agency to supervise and regulate the operations of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae and other housing-related GSEs. Scarcely one month later, Fannie Mae announced an “accounting error” of $1.2 billion, which probably prompted Mr Gregory Mankiw, Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, to assert that legislation was urgently needed, including “broad authority to set both risk-based and minimum capital standards as well as receivership powers necessary to wind down the affairs of a troubled GSE”.

In February 2004, President Bush returned to the subject, indicating that given the risks posed by the unprecedented growth of the GSEs and their low levels of required capital he called for the creation of a new and strengthened regulator to supervise their activities. Later that same year, Samuel Bodman, Deputy Secretary of Treasury, reiterated the government’s preoccupation with the financial health of the GSEs and called for a new “first class regulatory supervisor for the three housing GSEs; Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Home Loan Banking System”.

In April 2005, Treasury Secretary John W. Snow testified before the House Financial Services Committee that events since 2003 had reinforced concerns over the risks posed by the housing GSEs and highlighted the need for more strict regulation. Two years later, in 2007, President Bush formally requested the House and Senate to approve legislation proposed by his government the better to regulate the conduct of the three principal housing GSEs. His appeal, like the previous ones, was rejected by Congress led, among others, by Senator Dodd and Congressman Frank, again on the grounds that Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac were enjoying excellent health and there was no need for the government to interfere with their operations.

Finally, responding with increasing urgency to the deteriorating situation throughout 2008, President Bush registered more than a dozen formal appeals for bi-partisan support for what he considered to be the urgently needed approval by Congress of prudent regulations for the operations of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. When the Democratic Party of Miss Pelosi finally responded positively to his requests it was too late for any such reform to prevent the imminent collapse of the financial scheme that no doubt well-intentioned Democrats from Johnson to Carter, Clinton, Senator Dodd and Congressman Frank had busily put together during the past half-century. Given these abundantly known and very well-documented antecedents, Miss Pelosi’s attempt to blame President Bush for the sub-prime collapse that played such an important role in bringing about the present recession deserves justly to be described as disingenuous croaking of truly majestic proportions.

It was a leading Wellingtonian croaker and, ironically, a knight of the realm, who set the precedent of resorting to invective when attempting to disqualify policies of which he did not approve. As noted above, Sir Francis Burdett dismissed Jenkinson, and Pitt before him, as “imbeciles”. Although this approach did not prosper, the ad hominem style of effortless vulgarity proved irresistible, and latter-day croakers again resorted to scraping the bottom of the gutter and hurling what they found there at Churchill and Truman who, like Wellington and Jenkinson, declined to be rattled. All those antique efforts look decidedly amateurish when compared with the barrage of scurrilous insolence that croakers have directed at President Bush.

There can be no doubt that in our time this ignoble expression of political opposition has reached its nadir and full consummation to a choral accompaniment of derisory insults and lies uttered by serried platoons of disconcerting lawyers, climate-change consultants, doleful scientists, rich journalists, notorious disc jockeys, ageing cricketers and lobbyists, and scarcely literate, but socially conspicuous matrons innocent of any readily perceived intellectual cultivation who have none the less drowned the President’s statesmanship and achievements with pronouncements urbi et orbi that he is either ignorant and foolish or at best a simpleton scandalously out of his depth in the world of affairs.

This is well illustrated by the ease with which a notoriously unfriendly press and a populist intelligentsia have succeeded in transferring the personal invective to the ambit of counter-intelligence, waging a misinformation campaign worthy of the Cominform in its glory days describing American intelligence as inept, lazy, negligent and criminally inefficient. The CIA and MI6 must have been delighted with all this publicity because nothing attracts enemy mistakes better than the conviction that the sentries are asleep.

This may also help to explain the deafening silence with which the croakers have responded to one of the most extraordinary achievements of President Bush’s government, which is simply to stop terrorists from killing any more human beings in the North American continent following the massacre of civilians on September 11, 2001. A very long time will have to pass before even the slightest intimation of the means whereby the terrorist onslaught was halted, but there is no doubt that notwithstanding the complaints of croakers, some of whom may even owe their lives to this considerable achievement, President Bush’s domestic security counter-offensive will take its place together with his repeated attempts to prevent or moderate the Democratic Party’s sub-prime fiasco, and his statesmanlike conduct of foreign affairs, to sustain what will inevitably be a thoughtful reappraisal of his time at the helm, on which will be based a just and lasting resurgence of popular approval.

Two and a half centuries ago, the French philosophes observed that alone among the great powers Britain had a social fabric and political institutions that could tolerate, countenance and co-exist with oppositional tactics and behaviour that elsewhere would almost certainly be regarded as seditious or worse, and yet to emerge both victorious in war and socially and politically unscathed by such indulgence. This experience is not restricted to Britain. In 1863, when the American Civil War was at its fiercest, there was such a surfeit of croaking reluctance to support the Union inside Boston’s aristocratic Somerset Club that a sizeable group of members resigned in protest and founded the Union Club, only a stone’s throw away, across the Boston Common. There can be little doubt that outside the English-speaking world the fate of those Somerset Club Confederate stalwarts would have been painfully different.

This is a species of institutional strength denied to Periclean Athens and Ciceronian Rome, but bound up inextricably with the precious British inheritance of common sense, common decency and true democracy received by the nations of the English-speaking world that helps to explain the inexhaustible vitality of the croakers, as well as their indifferent success.


[1] The Creevey Papers, Thomas Creevey, Edited by John Gore, London, 1934, pp.69-80

[2] Julian Rathbone, Ed., Wellington’s War. Peninsular Dispatches, London, 1984, pp.94-96; Elizabeth Longford, Wellington. The Years of the Sword, New York, 1969, pp. 218-219

[3] André Maurois, Byron, New York, 1930, pp. 245-246.

[4] Andrew Roberts, Napoleon and Wellington, London, 2001, pp. 5-6, 60-61

[5] Asa Briggs, The Age of Improvement, 1783-1867, London, 1959, p.158

[6] Andrew Roberts, Eminent Churchillians, London, 1995, pp. 140-142

[7] Roberts, Eminent Churchillians, pp. 173, 194, 207

[8] Harry S. Truman, Memoirs, volume two, Years of Trial and Hope, 1946-1952, New York, pp. 105-106