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Wising Up About “High Politics”

Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher

To discuss David Brooks now is to discuss a psychological problem, not a political one. The most striking thing about Brooks’s “The Leaderless Doctrine,” his New York Times op-ed piece this week, isn’t what the columnist says; rather, it’s what he doesn’t allow himself to notice.

“Americans have lost faith in the high politics of global affairs,” Brooks mourns. “They have lost faith in the idea that American political and military institutions can do much to shape the world. American opinion is marked by an amazing sense of limitation—that there are severe restrictions on what political and military efforts can do.”

This being a proper op-ed page, our own degraded moment in time will inevitably be compared to the magnificence of our prelapsarian past: “The veterans of World War II returned to civilian life with a basic faith in big units—big armies, corporations and unions,” Brooks continues. “They tended to embrace a hierarchical leadership style.”

Now, Brooks discovers “that faith in big units has eroded,” leaving us with a horrifying world in which people—brace yourself—feel permitted to independently make their own value judgments and decisions. “Today,” tragically, “people are more likely to believe that history is driven by people gathering in the squares and not from the top down.” And so we get social organization through “a spontaneous network of direct people-to-people contacts, flowing along the arteries of the Internet.”

Oh, dear reader, at one time, we had massive social organization through rigid, state-centered hierarchies, building on the acculturation of an entire generation to military structure and the discipline of life in the ranks—and it was awesome. The New York Times is the only place in the world where the conservative contributors openly yearn to be merged with the collective and molded to the will of the glorious motherland.

We have to discuss Brooks in psychological rather than political terms, because he tends to reads political reactions as collective disorders of social consciousness. If Americans “have lost faith in the idea that American political and military institutions can do much to shape the world,” Brooks isn’t going to evaluate the effectiveness of American political and military organizations in shaping the world. Instead, he’s going to focus on the wounded hearts of a faithless people. Authority burns down house; residents rebuke authority; David Brooks wonders what pathology has infected the faith of the residents. Why don’t they believe anymore?

The United States has been at war in Afghanistan for thirteen years, with no sign of strategic success. An American war in Iraq overthrew a Sunni dictatorship that ruled by violence and political repression and replaced it with a Shiite dictatorship that rules by violence and political repression. An undeclared war in Libya replaced an intermittently violent dictator with the unrelenting chaos of Islamist warlordism. A red line in Syria turned out to not be a red line at all, and Bashar Assad is probably winning the civil war that American policy all but explicitly declared he should lose. The president of the United States sternly warned Vladimir Putin that there would be dire consequences if Russia intervened in Ukraine; Putin shrugged and took Crimea.

Yet, for some strange reason, ordinary Americans lack faith in the ability of American political and military institutions to shape the world. What’s wrong with these folks?