Comment: Revolting Elites

By all accounts, we are entering a month of great national deliberation. In the main arena, the most serious foreign-policy debate since Vietnam is unfolding, with senior members of the president's own party among those articulating the most serious qualms. It's almost what the Constitution's framers had in mind: a great debate, conducted through congressional hearings, before America goes to war -- and in this case a debate seemingly forced upon the president by public opinion.

This is all but unprecedented. Prior to World War II, there was an agonizing debate over whether to re-arm and whether to aid the beleaguered British. But an actual shooting war was abruptly thrust upon us only with Pearl Harbor. During Vietnam, Sen. J. William Fulbright's famous hearings came well after Lyndon Johnson's trumped-up war escalation and his commitment of American ground troops. What will this new great debate actually be like? Will James Baker and Brent Scowcroft be called? Will they be candid about their doubts? Will Colin Powell?

In the other ring of the circus, the corporate one, we also have the odd spectacle of the most powerful of elites in the role of dissenters. Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, came out early for the accounting reforms that Congress eventually enacted in the Sarbanes bill. Alan Greenspan, the incumbent Fed chairman, wants to go further and have corporations treat executive stock options as ordinary business expenses. That would result in more honest balance sheets and might slow down the options frenzy.

Isn't this lovely? Baker and Scowcroft as brakes on war hysteria; Greenspan and Volcker as scourges of corporate corruption. But something is very wrong with this picture. It is entirely an elite debate and a narrow one. What's missing are real dissent and real reform. Anybody who expects dissent and reform to emerge from the very citadels of the system misunderstands the nature of power.

Take first the foreign-policy debate. What we really have here is an intramural spat between the wing of the Republican elite that gives primacy to oil and good relations with the Saudis -- Baker, George Bush the Elder -- and those more concerned about the military balance and Israel -- Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney. Cheney, like George Bush the Younger, came out of the oil patch. But in the present, post-September 11 context, Iraq is both a strategic worry and a handy diversion from the less than impressive reality in Afghanistan, the India-Pakistan mess and the domestic economy. Both wings of the Republican foreign-policy elite have in common a dangerous view of the United States as a go-it-alone superpower, a contempt for international institutions, a disdain for global public opinion and a willingness to overlook human-rights abuses when they are committed by military allies.

Although some Democrats in Congress are belatedly engaging the issue, they may be setting themselves a trap that Bush can too easily spring. Democratic doves have gone out of their way to make clear that they, too, think Saddam Hussein is a menace. One can easily imagine congressional hearings leading to a patched-together consensus that Bush should give the Iraqi dictator one last brief chance -- this time for real -- to admit weapons inspectors. In return, Congress grants Bush authority to make war if the Iraqis refuse. So Bush gets an overwhelming and bipartisan grant of congressional support, right on the eve of the midterm elections. He then makes Saddam an offer he can't accept. And voilĂ ! Bush has tamed both the Democrats in Congress and the menace in Iraq. We are on the eve of an election and a war, the president is back in the saddle, the shaky economy is off the radar screen and W. has done it again. You can infer this game plan from a recent hysterical Wall Street Journal editorial comment, which attacks Tom Daschle for wanting to delay a war vote until after the elections.

Some very different debates are in order: about the United States' role in the world, about the place of international institutions and multilateral peacekeeping efforts, about human rights and about oil. Don't look to Baker and Scowcroft for these debates, and we'll be lucky if the Democrats raise them.

Similarly, in the case of corporate reform, the issue begs for a broader challenge. The Greenspan-Volcker version of reform, though an improvement on the worst of Enron capitalism, is a pitifully narrow sort of amelioration. At issue is not just honest corporate bookkeeping or how to make corporate CEOs slightly more accountable to shareholders. The broader issue, far beyond the ken of Greenspan and Volcker, is the governance not just of corporate boards but of capitalism. The economy isn't just one of shareholders but of stakeholders including workers and communities.

Ultimately, the debates are feeble because America's countervailing democratic institutions are insufficiently robust. The labor movement and the antiglobalist protest organizations do their best. But absent broader popular mobilization, the institutional Democratic Party will only go so far.

A very hopeful view would hold that elite criticism -- Greenspan on stock options, Baker calling for caution -- could be the harbinger of mass protest. In past eras, reformist elites and mass protesters energized each other. Earl Warren, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy worked very different venues to achieve a common vision to end segregation. A more mannered process occurred during the Progressive Era, when Wall Street's congressional allies co-opted the money issue from the populists and gave us an elastic currency via the Federal Reserve. Mass protest and elite-led reform also fed on each other in the 1930s, just as the Fulbright hearings gave a sense of legitimacy to the street protests during the Vietnam era. But Baker is no Fulbright, and much less is Volcker a John L. Lewis. The next protest, if it comes, will come from below.

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