"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
We have made ourselves a navel-gazing folk, a little like Americans of the 19th century — until we lunged into the world by bravely going after the crumbling Spanish empire. And in truth there is plenty that is worthy of our inward gaze now that unjust foreign wars have dropped out of the repertoire.
But absorption in our many domestic ills is not what we are all about these days. Vigorous scrutiny at home, never an American habit, is not why we do not much look outward. For most of us, the point is to avert our eyes as our claim to leadership in global affairs weakens. As an impatient world wings past in pursuit of a new order, America is befuddled and America flinches.
This is my read of foreign policy in the era of Obama and John Kerry, our most mediocre secretary of state since Condi Rice. Well, since Colin Powell. No, since Madeleine Albright. OK, since Warren Christopher. Let’s say since Larry Eagleburger, since … Alas, there is a reason the State Department is called “Foggy Bottom.”
It’s time to notice that Kerry cannot do much more than run to catch up. In Syria, in Iran, in the Pacific: State has been managing no more than frenetic improvisation since Kerry took office last February. And when Kerry is able to exert American preferences, as in Egypt, he gets it very wrong — invoking the past, ignoring the new century’s extraordinary dynamism, reverting to Cold War typology as if it can still be made to apply (and as if it ever did).
Scraping away the pretense, we are the ones crumbling now — not altogether unlike the Spanish when Teddy Roosevelt set America’s sights on them. And I think it is terrific.
This is neither cynicism nor declinism nor simple pessimism. I call it “the optimism of pessimism.” Once we finish our crumbling — and it is exactly like the Spanish in this regard — we will have a chance of getting on in the world constructively, of taking our proper place in history (as opposed to standing, somehow, above it).
It is a long-wave thought, true — “the work of a generation,” to borrow from the honorable Edward Snowden. But this is what makes 2013 so singular a passage in the running tale of U.S. policy abroad. It is hard to see your moment in history — by definition you are in it. But, rare enough, it is easier now than it usually is.
Among Kerry inheritances when he took the chair after Hillary Clinton was the “pivot to Asia.” The phrase faded quickly, and it was never more than a trumped-up effort to give American diplomacy the appearance of design — “architecture,” as the dips like to say. Instantly, Kerry was up to his neck in the quicksands of the Middle East.
Egypt came first. It was hard to detect, not least because of the disgraceful news reporting (or maybe it was the editing), but we witnessed a Washington-sanctioned coup last summer while scarcely noticing it. The instrument was Susan Rice, just then made national security adviser: She put the call through to Cairo, giving the generals the nod.
Mohammed Morsi’s fate was exactly the same as Mossadegh’s in Iran, 1953 (elected leader, the nation’s first, traded for a murderous autocrat) and Arbenz in Guatemala a year later (first elected leader out, military men and 30 years of civil war in). The three had the same flaw by Washington’s reckoning: Two social democrats and a moderate Muslim, they all stood outside the arc of American control.
So much for Kerry’s dexterity and imagination, as we read about these virtues in the newspapers. The take-home here: We have changed not at all over the past 60 years, and public deception is consistently essential to the proceedings.
We (well, some of us) mourn parts of our past, not least the coups. Bill Clinton, on a half-day visit to Guatemala City during his presidency, actually apologized for the CIA job on Arbenz. In the same way, some of us may someday get around to regretting what we did to the first president Egyptians chose for themselves. But this has to wait until it no longer matters.
And now you see what I mean, perhaps, when I suggest that it is time to recognize that we inhabit our own history.
Next to the same-old in Egypt, Syria and Iran are even more telling of our time. In both cases, we can discern the future arriving.
We are all trained to find Assad repellent. He is, but I would say less so than Pinochet was, to choose one among Washington’s many repellent clients over the years. Washington gives not a hoot about Assad’s domestic doings. Assad is an impediment in the post–Cold War project in the Middle East: wall-to-wall control and a clear coast for Israel as it avoids settling up with the Palestinians.
Just when it looked as if Assad was to meet the familiar fate, there was a loud snap. Did you hear it? It was the Russians telling us the world, and power, work differently in this century.
When Putin shoved Obama aside — a good description of what he did — this was the pith of the message. The chemical weapons agreement that followed is good enough, but it is nothing more than a face-saver for the Americans. It starts to look as if the Iranians will bring Assad to the peace talks Kerry wants to organize in Geneva.
The Iranians, then. I cannot think of anyone better qualified to announce that the question of America’s “global leadership” is precisely a question. This was why the governing class in Washington resisted Tehran’s offer to negotiate its nuclear program every which way until it became unseemly to pout any longer.
Kerry wants this deal, plainly. He wants it because he recognizes that it is the best Washington is going to get out of Iran and that Iran is now positioned to define the parameters.
We do not know how these talks, now in progress, will turn out. It is not the point here. What interests me is that America has once again been required to follow those with a better vision of what lies in front of us, not behind, and to take things beyond force. (And I count sanctions a form of force.)
You get a variant when you look across the Pacific. You have the future coming at us and the Americans insisting that, no, everything remains as it has long been, mostly because it has long been. Go ahead, pick the winning hand.
China’s assertion of its rights to control airspace off the East China Sea riled Washington and frightened the Japanese and South Koreans, which are dependencies in this context. I can find no justification for this other than inertia and the elevation of “stability” to an object of idolatry.
Look at a map. Japan’s claims to jurisdiction over airspace are immodest, to put it mildly. They extend too far from Japanese shores and too close to China’s. The claims of South Korea and Taiwan are less distorted but nonetheless problematic.
These lines were drawn in Washington in the 1950s and given to Tokyo and Seoul. They tell us what Cold War containment policy looked like from the air. China’s move was disruptive, but properly so. It is at bottom merely a corrective.
One of the smartest things said about the China crisis came from a professor and a sometime policy adviser in Beijing, Shi Yinhong, after the U.S. sent two B-52s — icons of Western intrusion since the Vietnam War — into the disputed zone. The American bombers, he explained, were “a negative development for a strong, great-power relationship.” Pretty good, I would say. It is just what this is all about.
Here is Joe Biden upon arriving in Tokyo: “Japan knows that we have stayed for more than 60 years, providing the security that made possible the region’s economic miracle. We have been, we are, and we will remain a resident Pacific power.” Not so good. The gaze is backward, not toward tomorrow or even today. The U.S. is a Pacific power, fair enough. It is not an Asian power. The Chinese require Washington to begin making the distinction. The “resident” bit was sophomoric trickery.
If one moment signals that American foreign policy as we have known it is entering some sort of late, overripe stage, it was when Biden traveled from Tokyo to Beijing. Incapable of anything resembling mastery and wordless in the face of China’s intentions, he reverted to a wise-uncle act — “avuncular” was the New York Times’ term, dutifully picked up by many others.
Is this a joke? I had to ask. Clunky times 10 at the very least: You have a former senator from Delaware lecturing people with several millennia of diplomatic practice behind them on how to behave in their own neighborhood? I knew then that American diplomacy was taking on attributes of a variety show — we being the intended audience.
Holidays approach, so two bottom lines under the tree. First, world leadership is encrypted in the American identity. It is what the founding generation meant to claim as it addressed Europe and history. It is the origin of the you-cannot-get-along-without-us theme. It is what Biden meant when he told the Japanese, “We made your miracle possible.”
This self-image is already making it difficult for Americans to see, not to mention act adroitly, in an era that repudiates the very thought of anyone leading it. This is part of what has to crumble, which is another word for learning anew. We have to learn to contribute, to compromise, to see other points of view, and to negotiate, which is otherwise known as diplomacy.
The matter of diplomacy is point two. We have had a diplomacy deficit for my lifetime (which is saying something). We are not very good at it because we have had no need of the skill.
Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the U.N. secretary-general in the 1990s (until Washington systematically discredited him and pushed him out), made this point in his 1999 memoir, “Unvanquished.” Diplomacy is for small nations, not the large, he said. It was a comment on the nature of power and was right at the time.
But no longer, as he must be pleased (at 91) to note. Diplomacy is for everyone in this century. The sooner Americans learn this, the better off everyone will be, and Americans will be better Americans. And it looks as if we have begun to learn — if the hard way.
I knew a psychiatrist who used to tell his patients, “Rome wasn’t unbuilt in a day.” There, a third bottom line, just as a surprise.
Patrick Smith is the author of “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century.” He was the International Herald Tribune’s bureau chief in Hong Kong and then Tokyo from 1985 to 1992. During this time he also wrote “Letter from Tokyo” for the New Yorker. He is the author of four previous books and has contributed frequently to the New York Times, the Nation, the Washington Quarterly, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter, @thefloutist.More Patrick L. Smith.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)