Culture > Books

Beltway Books: Inside the power plays

Books | Power corrupts, but it doesn't have to corrupt absolutely

Issue: "Motel 1600," Sept. 6, 1997

The game of politics has long been played for keeps, no less so in America than in other nations. In Whatever It Takes, journalist Elizabeth Drew chronicles what was probably the most important election last fall-that for the House of Representatives. The GOP congressional leadership threw Bob Dole overboard even before he was his party's nominee. Congressional Republicans then fought tenaciously to maintain a slender majority. Ms. Drew, long of the moderate left, tells much of the story from the viewpoint of conservative activists. Technology has become a driving force in American society. It has produced undeniable benefits-in my case, arthroscopic knee surgery. It can also magnify the potential of human sin. Technology does not develop in a vacuum; rather, argues Robert Pool in Beyond Engineering, a host of non-scientific variables shape what and how specific devices are created. Mr. Pool looks at the mundane (light bulbs) and the spectacular (nuclear energy). I'm not sure that he's right when he contends that the increased complexity of modern machines makes them qualitatively different from past technological advances, but he is correct in emphasizing the importance of effective control as technology's potential for harm increases. Proposals to extend NATO, which means defending Central and Eastern European countries, could bring foreign conflict home to America. John Denson's The Costs of War offers a devastating critique of Washington's interventionist tendencies. The book, a series of conference papers, shows how, for instance, the Civil War sparked the federal government's (still ongoing) centralization of power and how World War I reflected the triumph of collectivism. One of the most disatrous actions in the Vietnam War was America's bombing of Cambodia. What followed was even worse: genocide, invasion, and civil war. Wilfred Deac's Road to the Killing Fields helps readers understand the latest permutations of Cambodian politics, including the purported trial of Pol Pot and the seizure of power by co-premier Hun Sen, a onetime Khmer Rouge guerrilla. R.J. Rummel, of the University of Hawaii, has elsewhere shown how government is the great killer of all time, having killed some 170 million people-in addition to soldiers' wartime deaths-this century. In Power Kills, he makes the case for democracy as a mechanism for controlling genocide. Although democracies have gone to war and killed innocent people, they simply do not commit as many and as horrid crimes as do authoritarian regimes. This is an especially good volume for anyone who believed that there was no moral difference between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. That principled leadership in war and peace alike is possible is evident from Crusade in Europe, by the man who oversaw the invasion of the Nazi-held continent and went on to become president. The book is a reissue, but it is worth reading afresh, since it demonstrates that only a generation or two ago America had leaders of whom it could be proud. There is no reason to settle for less today.

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