Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The gaul

A good post on why the French non to the EU Constitution is not just a mistake, but also a product of bad faith. More shortly.

Monday, May 30, 2005

The Straussians

A couple months back I quoted at length from what I took to be Shadia Drury's excellent analysis of Leo Strauss, the intellectual godfather of neocon thought. I must admit that I am not a Strauss scholar myself, and so I may have spoken out of turn a bit in suggesting that Drury had got Strauss just right. One friend wrote to me:
I think there's some throwing-of-babies-out-with-bathwater in Shadia Drury's critique and the typical linking with the moralism, dishonesty and epistemological hubris of the Neocons. Strauss' theory of the importance and role of political morality, of the need for "noble lies," of the split in leadership between philosophers and "gentlemen," of how such factors structure "regimes" (contrast with Gramsci's concept of political education and hegemony, what it means for a leadership to have a hegemonic vocation, and on what the durability of regimes turns), of the "three waves of modernity," and his privileging of the early modern era as a historical and moral watershed (contrast Marx's version of the same idea, and modernization theory's - and both of their emphases on the even greater watershed of the transition to full industrial society), are more interesting than they're being given credit for by critics.

It may well be true that Drury conflates the ideas of Strauss himself with those of the Straussians in power today -- or rather, that she grants that the neocon reception of Strauss's ideas is in fact the truest, most faithful (if not the only possible) interpretation of Strauss's ideas. This hermemenutic strategy is alas quite common: the actual writings of people who found of "schools of thought" tend to be highly complex, and often ambiguous and even opaque; typically these founders provide scant (if tantalizing) suggestions as to how to apply these ideas in practice. Precisely this open-endedness is what provides the latitude for followers to expand and develop the master's ideas; inevitably these expansions and developments can be legitimately seen as either extensions, or perversions, or both.

Given this extremely common phenomenon, intellectual historians must struggle mightily to determine clearly what was original to the master, and what was, for good or ill, added and lost in the master's reception among the followers. The historiography surrounding Marx and his followers provide the locus classicus for this phenomenon: was Engels the true intellectual heir of Marx, or did he pervert the man's intent? Lenin? Mao? (Vast literatures were once devoted to these debates, almost all of which is unreadable today.)

With this in mind, it seems to me that as a matter of intellectual historiography, even if Drury's work provides only a limited view of the inner possibilities of Strauss's thought, she's still done an admirable job is providing an explanation for why Strauss's ideas have proven so seductive to people who want to pursue the neocon political agenda; in short, she's unpacked the sotto voce neocon interpretation of Strauss.

Before I proceed, let me note that saying this does not imply that we can blame old Leo straightforwardly for the Iraq debacle. A crucial methodological point is that the influence of Straussian ideas on the neocons tells us more about the psychology of the neocons than it does about the inner meaning of Strauss's ideas themselves. Let me explain.

As much as intellectuals may learn from the work of great forebears, intellectuals (like other people) also "select" their influences as a way to put structure around pre-rational beliefs (or psychological conditions). There's no such thing as an intellectual tabula rasa: like everyone else, intellectuals start with a set of preconceived, fundamental intuitions. As they read to explore the nature of their intuitions and sentiments (this process of reading is what makes them intellectuals), they naturally glom onto intellectuals and ideas that help to justify their a priori intuitions; in short, much of what intellectuals do as they read is not seek out new ideas, but rather quest for "a usable past." One could perhaps describe this process as one of "inductive influence."

Consider the typical path most people underwent in becoming intellectual Marxists. Most people started with an intuitive revulsion at an economic system which allowed a handful of people to enrich themselves while destroying age-old communities and lifeways; then they read Marx and said, "Ah ha! This explains exactly what I've always intuited but never understand!" This kind of "inductive" pattern of intellectual influence is, I believe, far more common than "conversion experiences," whereby someone reads an author and changes his mind about something fundamental.

Let me hasten to add that this is not an anti-intellectual argument that all intellectuals do is provide rationalizations for prejudices. Certainly intellectuals do end up sometimes in that unfortunate role, but more commonly (and again, Marx is paradigmatic in this sense), intellectuals can consolidate and bring into a coherent form set of intuitions which otherwise remain ill-formed and thus unactionable. Very rare is the intellectual (Nietzsche?) who truly breaks the mold and produces something wholly original, rather than building and aggregating ideas that other authors put forth in vaguely-formed ways.

Finally, back to Strauss, and whether or not the neocons have in any significant sense "misappropriated" his ideas. "Applications" by followers of the high-order syntheses and complex analyses of a master inevitably involve interpretation and (to purists, disappointing) compromises. So how much can Strauss be held responsible for, say, Paul Wolfowitz's ideas, or more narrowly, for the invasion of Iraq?

To answer this question, it's worth recollecting what Derrida once said about Nietzsche's "responsibility" for Nazism. He said that while Nazism was a falsification of Nietzsche's purposes and essence, it is also true that some authors are more "available" to pernicious falsification than others. It's hard to imagine, Derrida pointed out, J. S. Mill being invoked to justify political atrocity quite as easily as Nietzsche. (Then again, the Indians might disagree.) Nietzsche had to be held to account, Derrida felt, for producing an oeuvre that at moments exalted violence, power, elitism, hatred, madness and a castigation of any sense of limits or humility -- and the fact that other moments of his thought provided ample grounds for a more humanistic reading does not absolve Nietzsche of responsibility for producing passages which, taken out of their deep philosophical context, can easily be seen as provocations to a very dangerous politics.

The Other GWOT: Newsweek edition, pt. 2

E.J. Dionne states the obvious about the systematic right-wing assaults on the independent media:

I fear that too many people in traditional journalism are becoming dangerously defensive in the face of a brilliantly conceived conservative attack on the independent media.

Conservative academics have long attacked "postmodernist" philosophies for questioning whether "truth" exists at all and claiming that what we take as "truths" are merely "narratives" woven around some ideological predisposition. Today's conservative activists have become the new postmodernists. They shift attention away from the truth or falsity of specific facts and allegations -- and move the discussion to the motives of the journalists and media organizations putting them forward. Just a modest number of failures can be used to discredit an entire enterprise.

Of course journalists make mistakes, sometimes stupid ones. Dan Rather should not have used those wacky documents in reporting on President Bush's Air National Guard service. Newsweek has been admirably self-critical about what it sees as its own mistakes on the Guantanamo story. Anonymous sources are overused. Why quote a nameless conservative saying a particular columnist is "an idiot liberal" when many loyal right-wingers could be found to say the same thing even more colorfully on the record? If the current controversies lead to better journalism, three cheers.

But this particular anti-press campaign is not about Journalism 101. It is about Power 101. It is a sophisticated effort to demolish the idea of a press independent of political parties by way of discouraging scrutiny of conservative politicians in power. By using bad documents, Dan Rather helped Bush, not John Kerry, because Rather gave Bush's skilled lieutenants the chance to use the CBS mistake to close off an entire line of inquiry about the president. In the case of Guantanamo, the administration, for a while, cast its actions as less important than Newsweek's.

Back when the press was investigating Bill Clinton, conservatives were eager to believe every negative report about the incumbent. Some even pushed totally false claims, including the loony allegation that Clinton aide Vince Foster was somehow murdered by Clinton's apparatchiks when, in fact, Foster committed suicide. Every journalist who went after Clinton was "courageous." Anyone who opposed his impeachment or questioned even false allegations was "an apologist."

We now know that the conservatives' admiration for a crusading and investigative press carried an expiration date of Jan. 20, 2001.

When the press fails, it should be called on the carpet. But when the press confronts a politically motivated campaign of intimidation, its obligation is to resist -- and to keep reporting.

Since "conservative postmodernists" have become a bit of a meme on the part of bloggers wishing to sound clever, it's worth noting that despite wingnut claims to the contary, there was nothing particularly "leftist" about postmodernism. Indeed, it cannot be emphasized enough that even though postmodernity's assault on fixed relations and meanings and values is clearly anti-conservative in the sence that it undermines "traditional" values and all other prejudices, and even though most so-called "postmodernists" have been men and women of the left, an anti-foundationalist epistemology in no way rules out right-wing politics. Precisely this, of course, was made all the revelations of Paul de Man's wartime Nazi-sympathizing so embarassing.

The old Nietzschean insight was that once you believe in nothing in particular, you can do anything. Contemporary right-wingers have turned that proposition on its head: in order to be able to do anything, you simply argue that there is no such thing as facts, only opinions.

Flies? Hell, more like mosquitoes rising from the quagmire

Remember how one of the arguments for going into Iraq was that it formed a "flypaper strategy" (a phrase coined by Andrew Sullivan that he now surely regrets), attracting and concentrating all the terrorists from all over the world into one place, where they could be exterminated once an for all, presumably resulting in a millenarian "End to Evil"?

Well, it turns out that things haven't worked quite out as the Bushies planned. So much so, in fact, that they have now announced a huge strategic flip-flop, motivated by the realization that the old neocon-conceived GWOT, far from concentrating and exterminating terrorists, has instead produced "a new generation of terrorists, schooled in Iraq over the past couple of years."

This article can be read as an obituary the old school neocon GWOTists. Money:

President Bush's top adviser on terrorism, Frances Townsend, said in an interview that the review is needed to take into account the "ripple effect" from years of operations targeting al Qaeda leaders such as Khalid Sheik Mohammed, arrested for planning the Sept. 11 attacks, and his recently detained deputy. "Naturally, the enemy has adapted," she said. "As you capture a Khalid Sheik Mohammed, an Abu Faraj al-Libbi raises up. Nature abhors a vacuum."

The review marks the first ambitious effort since the immediate aftermath of the 2001 attacks to take stock of what the administration has called the "global war on terrorism" -- or GWOT -- but is now considering changing to recognize the evolution of its fight. "What we really want now is a strategic approach to defeat violent extremism," said a senior administration official who described the review on the condition of anonymity because it is not finished. "GWOT is catchy, but there may be a better way to describe it, and those are things that ought to be incumbent on us to look at."

"No question this is the next stage, the phase two," another senior counterterrorism
official said....

Top government officials are increasingly turning their attention to anticipate what one called "the bleed out" of hundreds or thousands of Iraq-trained jihadists back to their home countries throughout the Middle East and Western Europe. "It's a new piece of a new equation," a former senior Bush administration official said. "If you don't know who they are in Iraq, how are you going to locate them in Istanbul or London?"

In fact, what's really happened is that Al Qaeda has been largely destroyed, mainly through (wow!) the careful post-Afghan invasion police work that has been done in conjunction with our oh-so-Democratic friends in Pakistan. In the meanwhile, completely separately, we've created a new generation of, largely separate, terrorists, located in Iraq.

Or to put it another way, everything we've done that's actually been effective against Al Qaida in the last three years is the stuff that the Bushies have scoffed at (i.e. policework, coddling dictators), whereas everything they've celebrated (i.e., quixotic efforts to use military might to produce democracy in civil-society-less countries) has been downright counterproductive.

But hey, that policy plays well in Midland, Peoria, and Boise, so who the hell cares? After all, if Bush's policies result in new terrorist strikes against our major cities, it'll mainly mean taking out Democratic voters. Come to think of it, maybe that's an explanation for why DC and New York voted 90% and 70% against Bush, respectively....

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Two cheers for smoke-filled rooms

In these most hyperpartisan of times, it may be that the only opportunity for actual policy advance is via (perhaps no longer smoke-filled) back-room deals. At least that's what seems to be driving progress on health coverage for the 24 million uninsured Americans. Geez, politicians doing their job, instead of grandstanding: who woulda thunk it?

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

No solutions in Iraq

If you read just one article on Iraq this year, this one by Juan Cole should be the one. Read it.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

The Nerd Society

I just spent a couple days in Finland, and it provided an eye-opening view of where commercial mobile technologies are going. The realization kept coming up via a series of uncanny experiences.

For example, yesterday I was walking down the street with one of my associates. On the way to his car, I noticed three metermaids ambling down the street ahead of us, all of them fiddling with their cell phones. I say "I noticed" this, but really that's too strong: it was more like this odd coincidence registered for me in some semi-conscious way. Then we get to my buddy's car. He whips out his phone, and starts to key in some digits. He explains to me that he is "logging out" of his parking space.

It turns out that the way "parking meters" now work in Finland is via SMS. You key in your car's license plate number as well as the "street code," and SMS this information into some number. This logs you into a system that charges you for however long you stay in the parking space, until you log out, with the charge showing up on your cell phone bill. Conversely, metermaids "check" the parking meters by simply walking around and keying in license plates, to see if the cars have registered online. (Soon, they'll simply snap photos of the license plates, and MMS those into the server.) From the POV of the consumers, this system is cool because you only pay for the minutes you're actually parked; there's never any leftovers. For the state, it's cool too, because there's no problem with defective meters or fraud, and people in violation can also be charged continuously, rather than a flat rate.

In America, this system would undoubtedly raise privacy concerns, but hey, this was Finland.

And this example is only the tip of the Finnish mobile-network iceberg. All over the place you can find videophone barcodes, supplying realtime information about the location you're at. This works as follows. Say it's freezing cold in January, and you need to take the bus home. You don't want to wait out in the cold, so instead, you take a picture of the videophone barcode on the side of the bus stop, and send it in. In response, you get SMSed information about the next time a bus is about to arrive. Just time enough to go grab a Starbucks!

I also saw one of my colleagues pay for a gasoline fill-up with his cell phone. (Who first foresaw that cell phones might replace credit cards?) I was also told about a service where, using a GPS-enabled phone, you can enter an address, and the phone will start giving you instructions on how to get there from where you are. You get the picture. This stuff is already on-line and massively available throughout the country.

Orwellian futures

This article about using cognitive mapping technologies to mine mass email archives, with the goal of identify "useful" information and "persons of interest" is both fascinating and terrifying. It's beyond doubt that this kind of technology is already being used by the three letter agencies, and can there be any question that the Chinese government is using such technologies to monitor its own people?

I would also be extremely surprised if this technology is not commercialized in short order. Certainly law enforcement agencies that would love to have COTS software that could help them when researching complex cases. No doubt some companies will use this technology to improve marketing techniques. (G-mail, anyone? are we so sure that Google will continue to "do no evil"?) But most sinisterly and quite likely, a commercialized version of this technology may well find customers in enterprises seeking "to improve management and oversight" over knowledge workers.

If I didn't find the technology so essentially disturbing, I'd go start a company to do this stuff right now.

Like other massive technological shifts, the rise of the network society, with the Internet's ability to aggregate information that otherwise and hitherto has been dispersed and unassembled, offers janus-faced moral and political implications. On the one hand, this information aggregation effect can (and will) be used to massively increase surveillance and centralized control. On the other hand, it can (and will) be used for much more democratic purposes, as a way to collect and understand individual views that might otherwise remain inchoate, or to find like-minded individuals on narrow topics, with whom one can collaborate.

Almost all epochal technological breakthroughs have this moral ambiguity, or more accurately, double moral possibility. Such breakthroughs enable new worlds, and the question is, will those new worlds be more or less moral than the one we live in now? The answer to that depends on the moral characters of the people who master the technologies themselves.

False equivalence alert

Andrew Sullivan edition.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Detainee treatment in Afghanistan

I read this article on the plane last night, and it quite literally nauseated me:

Four days before, on the eve of the Muslim holiday of Id al-Fitr, Dilawar set out from his tiny village of Yakubi in a prized new possession, a used Toyota sedan that his family bought for him a few weeks earlier to drive as a taxi.

After picking up three passengers, he passed a base used by American troops, Camp Salerno, which had been the target of a rocket attack that morning. Militiamen loyal to the guerrilla commander guarding the base, Jan Baz Khan, stopped the Toyota at a checkpoint.

Dilawar and his passengers were detained and turned over to American soldiers at the base as suspects in the attack. The three passengers were eventually flown to Guantánamo.

Dilawar was sent to Bagram and soon labeled "noncompliant." One of the guards, Specialist Corey Jones, said the prisoner spat in his face and started kicking him. Jones responded, he said, with a couple of knee strikes to the leg of the shackled man.

"He screamed out, 'Allah! Allah! Allah!' and my first reaction was that he was crying out to his god," Jones said to investigators. "Everybody heard him cry out and thought it was funny."

"It became a kind of running joke, and people kept showing up to give this detainee a common peroneal strike just to hear him scream out 'Allah,"' he said. "It went on over a 24-hour period, and I would think that it was over 100 strikes."

By the time Dilawar was brought in for his final interrogation in the first hours of Dec. 10, he appeared exhausted and was babbling that his wife had died. He also told the interrogators that he had been beaten by the guards.

When Dilawar was unable to kneel, said the interpreter, Ali Baryalai, the interrogators pulled him to his feet and pushed him against the wall.

"It looked to me like Dilawar was trying to cooperate, but he couldn't physically perform the tasks," Baryalai said.

Soon afterward he was dead.

The findings of Dilawar's autopsy were succinct. He had had some coronary artery disease, the medical examiner reported, but what killed him was the same sort of "blunt force trauma to the lower extremities" that had led to Habibullah's death.

One of the coroners later translated the assessment at a pre-trial hearing for Brand, saying the tissue in the young man's legs "had basically been pulpified."

"I've seen similar injuries in an individual run over by a bus," the coroner, Lieutenant Colonel Elizabeth Rouse, added.

"Pulpified"? I didn't even know that was a word, and honestly, it sickened me for my country. This guy was an innocent taxi driver, for God's sake.

Can anyone sane not regard this as torture? And you think it's the Newsweek article that's causing the anti-U.S. rioting?

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Signing out for two weeks

I'm travelling abroad for the next couple of weeks, so I expect blogging to be light.

The worst little Supreme Court justice in Texas

You'll never guess who the Houston Bar Association considers the worst Supreme Court justice in Texas. If you want the summary results, check out this article.

Damn lib'ral trial lawyers.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Lessons of Empire

Anyone who thinks the United States should embrace a neo-imperial role would do well to read this excellent article by Fred Cooper, which points to the ways in which other imperial projects came to grief, and eventually managed to use reasoning -- helping the natives progresss -- that initially justified seizing their empires, to eventually rationalize relinquishng their empires.

Cooper doesn't shy away from drawing out the lessons for today's neoimperialists, as the head for seats at the U.N. and the World Bank:

Actually ruling an empire was more complicated than civilizers, reformers, and redeemers admitted. The great advantage of a conquering power in the age of the telegraph and Maxim gun was the ability to concentrate forces and then move onward. Colonization meant raiding a village, visibly terrorizing its population, seizing the cattle, burning the huts, and going elsewhere. Routinizing control was another story, and it meant going against the logic of any civilizing mission or project of building a new political order. The only way to administer the large spaces and dispersed populations of Africa was to co-opt local elites into doing the dirty work. "Indirect rule" was a fact in Africa—as it had been in many other empires—long before it was a doctrine. Moreover, both France and Britain treated as sacrosanct an old imperial doctrine: colonies should pay for themselves. Even the famous imperial advocate Sir John Seeley said in regard to India in the 1880s, "It is a condition of our Indian Empire that it should be held without any great effort." British and French colonialism, at least up to World War II, was colonialism on the cheap: the colonies were supposed to pay the costs of their own repression....

As the natives became increasingly political restless, and failed to provide the economic benefits to the metropolitan center that imperialists had initially promised, it became clear that the imperialism was a very expensive proposition, and this, as much as anything else, was what eventually got the Europeans to give up on their empires. The bankrupting of their own domestic economies because of fiscal profligacy and fruitless wars on their own continent accelerated the process. Cooper continues:

What does this history signify for the present world conjuncture? It reveals alternative models for empire. The idea of empire as a transformative mechanism is indeed available, but one has to be careful about how one locates it. The precedents for it are not the "British Empire" or the French civilizing mission writ large. Rather, initiatives to systematically remake colonized societies appear as an alternative within colonial regimes, against other visions of colonization, from ruthless, dehumanizing extraction to the deliberate conservation of pacified indigenous communities, with a big dose of low-cost improvisation thrown in. The precedent regarding interventionist imperialism appears quite apt, but not in the way advocates of the empire model would have it: it is a precedent for getting out when the costs get high. If advocates of passing the imperial mantle from Britain to the United States worry whether Americans have the will to take on an imperial mission, the British experience should in fact reinforce their anxieties.

The other model of colonialism that seems quite relevant is what [Niall] Ferguson—but not where he draws the lessons for today—calls "butcher and bolt": the tendency of colonizing regimes to pacify or punish, move on, and do a poor job of establishing routine administration. That may well be—indeed that is Ferguson's worry—what the Bush Administration has in mind. In Iraq, however, bolting is proving the more difficult task.

Still another model of supposedly benevolent colonization is more consistent with a conservative administration's view of the world: a more minimalist view of keeping a colonial peace under which divided, "primitive" people are kept off each other's throats and given the chance to develop more productive agriculture and commerce under some predictable, if not exactly fair, administrative and judicial control. Familiarity with the past again should lead to skepticism about this future. The colonization of Africa extinguished certain forms of conflict—one need not invent a romantic image of pacific Africa to question the idea of a colonial peace. But the roots of present-day African conflicts lie significantly in the ethnicization which the colonial strategy of ruling through indigenous elites—frozen in place by the colonizing authority—fostered out of more shifting patterns of cultural difference and the efforts of rulers to recruit clients and followers. Rule of law was hardly a colonial
accomplishment: such a notion was cut across by racial segregation in employment, residence, and public accommodations and by the notion that Africans should be ruled by "custom" and that their land could only be "communal." When after World War II British and French governments at last tried to reduce the racial exclusions that were part of daily life in the colonies with the notable exceptions of colonies of white settlement—that was part of the ambitious modernization of imperialism, with all the costs and conflicts that this entailed. As an American administration not noted for its reformist social agenda seems to be discovering in Iraq, establishing rule of law, predictability in economic transactions, and intercommunal respect may well be among the most expensive, least certain, and long-term processes there are. Only the blindness of certain conservatives to the complexity of social life and their unawareness of the conflict-ridden histories of twentieth-century empires makes it possible for them to see colonial occupation as a precedent for establishing legality and transparency in administration.

Ferguson's argument for the passing of the imperial mantle from Great Britain to the United States is, in the end, not an argument about empire at all. The bulk of his book Empire is scrupulous enough to dissociate "empire" as a political form from rule of law, honesty, concern for others, and the generalization of the benefits of economic development. In the concluding pages, these virtues are linked not to the messy and often sordid story of empire, but to the image of a British man assuming the "White Man's Burden" and saving those people who cannot save themselves.

Friday, May 20, 2005

The political endgame for the filibuster debate

By the way, the Republicans' political strategy behind filibuster showdown is playing out just as I predicted in January. The Washington Post paraphrases Republican Senator John Cornyn as saying that the real issue underlying the debate is not so much giving these particular judges "an up or down vote" as it is "the potential use of the filibuster to block a future Supreme Court nominee."

Nuking the Senate

We'll soon learn the outcome of the political wrangling in the Senate. I haven't commented much on this topic (mainly for lack of time), but after mulling the issue for the last few days, I've come to the conclusion that, overall, I don't have that much of a problem with nuking the filibuster.

Let me elaborate. On many grounds the end of the filibuster will be a bad thing. First and most importantly, the short-term policy impact of getting rid of the filibuster, namely the recasting of the judiciary in a much more right-leaning way, will obviously be a bad thing for people who value things like defendant's rights, the separation of church and state, or the ability of malpractice and negligence victims to seek recompense. Second, it's hard not to feel disgust at the brazen hypocrisy of the Republicans' bogus claim that a senatorial rule and a practice that has been accepted for hundreds of years is somehow unconstitutional. (Josh Marshall has hammered this point repeatedly.) Third, on political grounds, it's a bad to lose a mechanism that can stem the flow of GOP absolutism, especially after having put a lot of political effort into the fight. (Just in terms of politics, however, the worst outcome of all would be some "compromise" that allows the Republicans to once again claim victory while labelling the Democrats flip-floppers.) Finally, there's the distasteful spectacle of watching so-called "conservatives" erasing rules desgined to, er, conserve existing institutions and political practices.

So, obviously there's a lot of bad stuff associated with the probably incipient end of the filibuster. However, at the end of the day, I still can't get very execised about it. And the reason is that I am pretty compelled by the technical argument that democracy should be about majoritarianism. Anyone who really believes in democracy needs to take that argument pretty seriously. Virtually all of the Senate's procedural rules (and there used to be lots more, beyond the filibuster) are designed as anti-majoritarian (i.e. anti-democratic) mechanisms whereby the Senate could "moderate the passions" of the much more populist Congress. In short, all of these rules are anti-democratic ruses, and indeed, when you get right down to it, the very existence of the Senate is an anti-democratic ruse. So as someone who believes in democracy, it's hard to really get behind any of these rules, the filibuster included. Even a brief glance at the history of how the filibuster has been used should make any progressive blanch.

But there's another reason I don't mind seeing the filibuster go, and that's because I believe (or rather, hope) that it will accelerate the incipient civil war that is building within the Republican Party.

From the perspective of the Republican Party, what's happening is fundamentally a debate about the nature of "conservatism." On the one hand, you have old-line conservatives, who largely conform to the classic understanding of that word, meaning that they are suspicious of rapid social or political changes, and believe in limiting the role of government in the private sphere. (Such conservatices notably include corporate life as part of the private sphere, whereas most progressives generally regard corporations as part of the public sphere -- and thus the appropriate subjects of government regulation.) Conservatives in this category more or less accept the New Deal compromise as the status quo, and prefer to nibble at its edges rather than engage in wholesale, radical revision.

On the other hand, the Republican Party also includes what for lack of a more elegant phrase can be called populist social reactionaries. This cadre, which today appears to represent the sizable majority of the Republican Party, is seeking to use its Party's narrow electoral majorities to push through a radical remapping of the countours of the public sphere. Its aim is to redefine the role of government away from economic regulation and more into moral regulation, and to rebalance the lines of responsibility and accountability between churches, the government, corporations, and private citizens.

The real question the Republican Party faces is whether the first category of conservative will go along, for reasons of political solidarity, with a program which is essentially anathema to their conservative principles, namely using the government to radically and rapidly remake society. In other words, the end of the filibuster is showing the category one conservatives that, in fact, the category two guys aren't really conservatives at all, despite their noisy claims to the contrary. And then the question will be, what happens to those people? Will the elitist conservatives go along with the populist program?

A "conservative populist" is pretty much an oxymoron. It's true that Populism has always had right-wing and left-wing flavors, and like all other political forms, populism has always made its nod toward "tradition." But simply claiming the mantle of the past does not make you a true conservative. The main thing that defines populism is a rhetoric of anti-elitism. Whether one is a left-wing or right-wing populist mainly depends on which elites you line up against: scientific elites, cultural elites, religious elite, political, economic, ethnic elites, or what have you.

In short, populism, of which majoritarianism is a mere expression is, by defition, anti-elitist; by contrast, Anglo-American conservatism, as John Derbyshire and Jonah Goldberg recently pointed out, has always been squarely committed to "elitism." That's why it seems to me very difficult to square majoritarianism with conservatism: any conservative worthy of the name has always been suspicious or worse of the intentions and capacity of the masses. And the Senate and its rules exists precisely to ward off those intentions and to guide those capacities.

The main argument against democratic absolutism (majoritarianism) has always been that the people lack the virtue necessary to be trusted. That argument is pretty compelling today, given what the (admittedly narrow) majority wants to accomplish. But in the end, as I say, I don't buy it. For a mature democracy like the United States, majoritarianism is a position I can't in good faith gainsay.

But of course, that's easy for me: I'm not a conservative (except in foreign policy). If I were, I'd be deeply troubled by what's happening in the Senate today. Taken as a whole, I think it's quite likely that the filibuster issue, like the Schiavo issue, may be one of those indicators of an oncoming crisis of "conservatism" that will in significant ways echo the crisis that "liberalism" began to experience in the 1960s. In other words, the various contradictions of the coalition will be exposed by a failing war and an inflationary economy, and the realization of the economic wing of the movement that they actually really dislike and perhaps even fear the cultural wing of the movement.

De facto censorship in Iraq?

A disturbing account from an American reporter who has spent ten months trying to figure out what the rebels in Iraq actually want to accomplish, not by listening to American talking heads, but by actually talking to the rebels themselves. Apparently, the American authorities are none too sympathetic with the project:

I could go into a long litany of the ways in which the American military has treated journalists in Iraq. Recent actions indicate that the U.S. military will detain and/or kill any journalist who happens to be caught covering the Iraqi side of the militant resistance, and indeed a number of journalists have been killed by U.S. troops while working in Iraq. This behavior at the moment seems to be limited to journalists who also happen to be Arabs, or Arab-looking, but that is only a tangential story to what I'm telling you about here.

The intimidation to not work on this story was evident. Dexter Filkins, who writes for The New York Times, related a conversation he had in Iraq with an American military commander just before we left. Dexter and the commander had gotten quite friendly, meeting up sporadically for a beer and a chat. Towards the end of one of their conversations, Dexter declined an invitation for the next day by explaining that he'd lined up a meeting with a "resistance guy." The commander's face went stony cold and he said, "We have a position on that." For Dexter the message was clear. He cancelled the appointment. And, again, this is not meant as any criticism of the military; they have a war to win, and dominating the "message," or the news is an integral part of that war. The military has a name for it, "information operations," and the aim is to achieve information superiority in the same way they would seek to achieve air superiority. If you look closely, you will notice there is very little, maybe even no direct reporting on the resistance in Iraq. We do, however, as journalists report what the Americans say about the resistance. Is this really anything more than stenography?

Many things about the situation in Iraq have made it all but impossible to know what is really going on there. The U.S. military's effort to quash reporting is only one dimension. The Iraqi resistance itself of course also targets journalists (Occidental ones, anyway), including journalists who are sympathetic to their cause -- recall why Sgrena was kidnapped in the first place.

All of this is a main reason why I have a skeptical view of the think-pieces or general assessments that journalists pen about Iraq. The one thing that seems fairly reliable are the statistics about the number of car bombings and casualties. And those things certainly do not seem to be trending in a positive direction.

Ah, the joys of sovereignty

According to the LA Times, the U.S. is moving to "reassert itself" in Iraq's political affairs. Money:

One official said that although the Iraqis were "the ultimate determinants of their own destiny … we have 140,000 troops here, and they are getting shot at."

"We're also spending a lot of money. We don't dictate action plans," the official said. "But we constantly remind them that we're working toward the same goal, and we have our 'red lines.'"

What are those red lines? Like, democratic, pluralistic, united... alas, achieving all three may simply be impossible.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Google Print Search

Google now lets you search books. Not complete, but a foretaste of what the keywordification of all knowledge will look like.

Turning point in Iraq?

We've heard so much about turning points in Iraq.

  • May 2003: the end of "major combat"
  • December 2003: capturing Saddam
  • June 2004: return of "sovereignty"
  • January 2004: national elections
  • April 2004: forming a government

Now Kevin Drum informs us that there have been 126 car bombings in Baghdad in the last 80 days, as compared with 25 in all of 2004. American military planners now concede we'll be in Baghdad for "many years":

In Baghdad, a senior [American] officer said Wednesday in a background briefing that the 21 car bombings in Baghdad so far this month almost matched the total of 25 in all of last year.

Against this, he said, there has been a lull in insurgents' activity in Baghdad in recent days after months of some of the bloodiest attacks, a trend that suggested that American pressure, including the capture of important bomb makers, had left the insurgents incapable of mounting protracted offensives. But the officer said that despite Americans' recent successes in disrupting insurgent cells, which have resulted in the arrest of 1,100 suspects in Baghdad alone in the past 80 days, the success of American goals in Iraq was not assured.

"I think that this could still fail," the officer said at the briefing, referring to the American enterprise in Iraq. "It's much more likely to succeed, but it could still fail."

Anyone still think we're winning in Iraq?

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Nicaragua, with roles reversed

I recently received an email with a startling conclusion, from an expert on Central American politics, suggesting that the correct analytical parallel to the siutation the U.S. faces in Iraq is not El Salvador in the 1980s, but rather Nicaragua -- but with the U.S. role reversed (!). Money:

[I]f there is an instructive parallel between contemporary Iraq and the Central America of the 1980s, it's not El Salvador but Nicaragua.

There are some parallels between the Iraqi and Salvadoran cases. It is interesting to note that the constant refrain of the Salvadoran right during the 1980s was that the FMLN was nothing more than "5000 terrorists" with no popular base, depending entirely on outside support from Nicaragua and Cuba. During the first eight months or so of the Iraq insurgency, the official Bush administration line was that the insurgency consisted of only "5000 terrorists" without a popular base, sustained by outside support from international Jihadist networks. While such depictions were wildly wrong in both cases, equally or more important is the fact that the two insurgencies, and the historical and structural contexts, are completely incommensurate. The only thing that is similar between the two situations is the ideology and practice of the two U.S. administrations involved, the disagreement of most of the rest of the world with that ideology and practice, and the fact that in the El Salvador of the 1980s, as in Iraq today, the most powerful institution in the country was the U.S. embassy....

In El Salvador, an electoral regime became meaningful and began to play a positive role only very gradually and against the grain of the policies of the first Reagan administration. Such evolved out of the combination of (1) the work of elements of the Church, and in particular UCA's (the Jesuit-run university) Social Projection, Ignacio Martin-Baro's development of IUDOP (public opinion institute), his and (UCA head) Ignacio Elllacuria's appearances on Canal 12 television, their insistence that their could be no military victory for either side; (2) the impact on U.S. policy of the partnership between Congressional Democrats and the anti-intervention movement in the U.S. and the leverage that gave to the moderate professionals in the State Dept and AID against the Reaganauts; (3) the Reagan administration's need to compete with and try to outshine the 1984 Nicaraguan election; (4) the unraveling of Iran-Contra, leading to some defanging of the Reagan Doctrine vis-a-vis Salvador (the Reagan Doctrine, parallel to current Bush/neocons, stood for the pipedream that military defeat of Third World "Communists" would lead automatically to the emergence and success of "democracy"); (5) Oscar Arias' work; (6) the profound delegitimation of the Salvadoran military by its 1989 murder of the UCA's Jesuit leadership, and the Bush administration's bowing to that delegitimation; (7) the shocking of the right by the strength of the FMLN's 1989 offensive; (8) the gradual revival of the center-left in Salvador at the end of the 80s and the gradual recognition by both ARENA and the FMLN that they should accept a growing role for such, the latter made possible by the fall of the Soviet bloc (9) the UN's massive and sustained presence and commitment to peace negotiations and processes, and the courageous service of prominent people in various truth and reconciliation commissions, and the Bush administration's willingness to countenance all that and lend some support, including to the purging and reduction of the Salvadoran military and security apparatus. It is impossible to imagine either the first Reagan administration, or the similarly deluded current Bush administration, behaving in a parallel manner.

There are no functional equivalents to most of these things at the present moment re Iraq. And of course it took a full ten years (1984 to 1994) in Salvador to get to elections that were beginning to be what passes for free and honest, and elections continued to have low participation (35-40% of the voting age population) for another 10 years. Something that is parallel between the two cases is that in both El Salvador and Iraq, a highly centralized and militarized government had profoundly suppressed civil society, except for religious leaders and groups, who were killed if they became too political, but otherwise allowed to survive and maintain their institutions. But in Salvador the Church/the religious were split only along left/center/right lines, and the most powerful institutional presence, UCA and the Archbishop were superhumanly committed to what amounted to center-left, pro-democracy, anti-militaristic positions. In Iraq, religious leaders and groups are much more highly fragmented in much more sectarian ways(compounded by profound geographical and ethnic splits, non-existent in El Salvador), neither they nor their cadre having experience with elections or democracy; many are pro-insurgency; many are only conditionally anti-insurgency (in Salvador the cadre and leaders of Christian Democracy and Liberation Theology had a good deal of experience with elections from the 1960s and 70s). Is there any potential for Sistani to play a role parallel to Ellacuria and Martin-Baro in Salvador?

Now lets consider the parallels between Iraq and Nicaragua. In earlier times, the U.S. government had supported the regimes of authoritarian, quasi-fascist caudillos in both countries (the Somozas in Nicaragua ans Saddam Hussein in Iraq). The manner in which those regimes were overthrown, and the character and initial strength of the new regimes, were of course very different. But after that, all we have to do is flip the U.S. role and we get some striking parallels. The FSLN regime in Nicaragua, and at least some elements among its foreign partners (the Soviet bloc and Cuba), thought the Sandinista revolution could be a model for the "democratic" overthrow of traditional authoritarian regimes throughout Latin America (the liberal middle class elements of the anti-Somoza coalition thought they were achieving something else --Costa Rica). The Bush administration, sponsor of the new Iraqi government thinks the Iraqi "democratic revolution" can have a massive demonstration effect leading to the "democratization" of authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East (Shi'a political parties and clerics think they are achieving something else -- a very different vision, with which liberals are quite uncomfortable, as liberals were uncomfortable with the Leninist version of Sandinismo). In the Nicaraguan case, Argentine, Guatemalan, and U.S. right-wing extremists were determined to prevent any such exemplary success of the Sandinista revolution and started organizing the remnants of the Somoza National Guard and security services, with some help from neighboring Honduras, to launch terrorist attacks in Nicaragua. Elements of the first Reagan administration, in the CIA and the National Security Counsel in particular, increasingly funded and helped organize those anti-Sandinista efforts. All of this bears some comparison to the outside help the Iraqi insurgency is getting from foreign Islamic jihadists and from some Baathist elements in Syria....

It seems to me likely that at least over the next few years, the new Iraqi government will duplicate many of the faults of the Sandinista government of the years after the 1984 Nicaraguan election--and probably few of its virtues. This is probably the best we can hope for. Equally likely is either full civil war and the breakup of the country, or a quasi-Leninist Shi'a theocracy. The liberal middle class and (and its U.S. sponsors), as in early ‘80s Nicaragua, left feeling that once again they've been robbed of their birthright and their country taken off on a pathological detour - except possibly for the Kurds if they are able to move toward viable autonomy.

One methodological and one substantive point.

Methdologically (and this reflects my training as a historian rather than a political scientist), I always get leery of arguments about geographically-abstracted "historical parallels or precedents," when they reach a certain level of detail. Comparisons can be illuminating at a fairly high level of abstraction, but inevitably they break down once you reach a certain degree of specificity. (Chomsky phrases this problematic nicely in an essay from the 1980s where he discusses the parallels between Central American during that decade and Vietnam 15-20 years earlier -- alas, I don't have the quote handy.) This article strikes me as perhaps crossing that line into excessive specificity. More generally, discussions of "historical precedents" seem to me useful, mainly, when they refer to the exact, local precedents of the local, specific situation. In other words, if you want to understand what's going on Iraq today, the right historical situations to examine probably aren't Vietnam or El Salvador, it's what was happening in Iraq and its neighbors over the last 50-90 years.

Substantively, the main thing that strikes me as missing from this analysis is that in all of the allegedly parallel situations (Vietnam, El Salvador, Nicaragua), the insurgents had a very significant source of external support, i.e. their Cold War sponsors. One of the things that is striking about the resilience and scope of the insurgency in Iraq is that none of these groups have a significant, large, explicit external sponsor to supply them with a steady source of money and materiel. (Yes, Osama supports Al-Zarqawi, but no one has proven this support is much more than ideological.) How long the multi-pronged insurgency can hold out without external support strikes me as a very real question. At some point, all the stockpiled explosives and weapons will start to run thin, and then what?

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

When was the decision to make war made?

CNN apparently needs a better proofreader for their homepage. I was surprised to see a link that read "White House refutes UK Iraq memo," that lead to this article, where Scott McClellan is quoted as making some vague, nonspecific denials about the timeline of the decision to invade Iraq.

Note to CNN: "refute" means "disprove" not "deny." The White House hasn't disproved anything. In fact, it hasn't even denied anything exactly. Even John McCain, sent to the Sunday talk shows to defend the administration, didn't exactly deny the question of the timeline for war, rather suggesting that he didn't "agree with" the memo's suggestions.

Fox News, of course, isn't even bothering to cover this story.

And over at Wingnut Central....

They're not just trying to roll back the twentieth century, but the nineteenth, too!

The Other GWOT: Newsweek edition

I've written before on how this White House is at least as interested in conducting a Global War on Transparency as it is a war on terror. It wants complete freedom of motion, and reining in an aggressive or institutionally oppositional free press is a central part of the program.

The vicious attack on Newsweek for apparently making a mistake on the story about the physical handling of the Koran in Gitmo is a case in point. Josh Marshall's got the goods on how the White House sees this story as a chance to decapitate another news organization, just as it succeeded with doing at CBS.

This isn't quite Putin-level stuff, to be sure, but even if the White House isn't actually responsible for planting the false story to begin with, this is definitely a case of the White House manipulating our mediatized "gotcha" legal culture to attack an independent and critical journalistic voice. And of course the Bushies are abetted in this by a rightwing media establishment and blogosphere that begins violently expectorating at the very prospect of taking out a member of the allegedly liberal MSM.

And even though it's obvious, it can't be pointed out often enough that these rightwing organizations and outlets that today are expressing such outrage over Newsweek's reporting mistake that may have indirectly resulted in dozens of deaths are the same ones that continue to give a free pass to the interrogation "mistakes" that have directly resulted in dozens of prisoners being tortured to death. The lack of moral proportion could hardly be starker.

Of course, moral proportion is not what the wingnuts stand for.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Fixing the intelligence: the smoking gun

The New York Review has just published a leaked copy of the minutes from the July 23, 2002 meeting of Tony Blair's cabinet meeting.

It's amazing to me that no one has commented on this more extensively in the American media. People apparently just don't care about getting deceived. But here it is in black and white, from the minutes of Bush's staunchest ally. Money quote:

C reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime's record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.

The Foreign Secretary said he would discuss this with Colin Powell this week. It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran. We should work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors. This would also help with the legal justification for the use of force.

To Bush's closest ally, the debate among the Bushies about whether to invade Iraq was already over by the summer of 2002. The fact that the decision had already been made means that the whole effort to enlist of intelligence and to court of the U.N. was nothing but a charade. (Which in turn explains at least half the reason why French refused to go along with it -- why should they acceed to being a mere shadow puppet in the Bushist wayang kulit?)

This memo sharply contradicts the claim that Condi made to Bob Woodward that Bush only made the decision to wage war on Iraq in early 2003.

Who gets to define science?

I love this story, starting with the headline, "Kansas Mulls Redefining Science":

Advocates of "intelligent design" are pushing the board to reject a definition limiting science to natural explanations for what's observed in the world.

Instead, they want to define it as "a systematic method of continuing investigation," without specifying what kind of answer is being sought. The definition would appear in the introduction to the state's science standards.

Next thing you know, these guys will think that a majority popular vote can determine whether, say, the sun revolves around the earth, or whether the earth is flat.

Don't these people understand that only scientists get to decide what science is? Determining scientific truth is not like getting elected student body president. If you're an ignoramus, you don't get to contribute to the debate.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Our friends, the Uzbeks

Here's a nice picture of Bush shaking hands with Islam Karimov, the President of Uzbekistan, and the man responsible for an ongoing massacre of political protesters.

Go democracy! Mission Accomplished!

Class and party

David Brooks offers a very useful and perspicacious piece on the confusing confluence of class position and party affiliation, especially at the lower end of the income spectrum. Money:

People at the top of the income scale are divided into stable, polar camps. There are the educated-class liberals - antiwar, pro-choice, anti-tax cuts - who make up about 19 percent of the electorate, according to Pew. And there are business-class conservatives - pro-war, pro-life, pro-tax cut - who make up 11 percent of voters.

These affluent people are pretty well represented by their parties, are not internally conflicted and are pretty much stuck in their ways.

This is a striking statistic, one that helps explain why even among rich folks who mix willingly (some might say promiscuously) with people from across the political spectrum (like myself), the Republicans' level of support still seems amazing: among people in my own social class, two thirds vote Democratic and find themselves unconflicted about that possibility. Brooks continues:

But poorer voters are not like that. They're much more internally conflicted and not represented well by any party. You've got poor Republicans (over 10 percent of voters) who are hawkish on foreign policy and socially conservative, but like government programs and oppose tax cuts. You've got poor Democrats who oppose the war and tax cuts, but are socially conservative and hate immigration. These less-educated voters are more cross-pressured and more independent than educated voters. If you're looking for creative tension, for instability, for a new political movement, the lower middle class is probably where it's going to emerge.

I think Brooks' taxonomy is largely correct, and that he's right that it is among these conflicted sorts that the primary political battle for the soul of the country is being waged. And Democrats would do well to heed the need to meet these folks' requirements. But Brooks is I think also right in explaining what separates working-class Republicans from working-class Democrats:

The big difference between poor Republicans and poor Democrats is that the former believe that individuals can make it on their own with hard work and good character.

According to the Pew study, 76 percent of poor Republicans believe most people can get ahead with hard work. Only 14 percent of poor Democrats believe that. Poor Republicans haven't made it yet, but they embrace what they take to be the Republican economic vision - that it is in their power to do so. Poor Democrats are more likely to believe they are in the grip of forces beyond their control.

I'm not sure I agree with Brooks that this division gives the Republicans a natural advantage since they are seen as "the party of optimistic individualism." This attitude is only a natural advantage insofar as the majority of people believe that this optimistic stance corresponds with reality. If that opinion changes, that same optimism can come to seem naive or out of touch. Just recollect what happened to Bush's dad in 1992. But there's little doubt that those who support the Republicans do instinctively have this optimism. But Brooks has an intellectually honest moment as he discusses the limits of the "optimistic individualism" even among Republican supporters:

[Republicans] are good at responding to business-class types and social conservatives, but bad at responding to poor Republicans.

That's because on important issues, the poor Republicans differ from their richer brethren. Poor Republicans aspire to middle-class respectability, but they are suspicious of the rich and of big business. About 83 percent of poor Republicans say big business has too much power, according to Pew, compared with 26 percent of affluent Republicans. If the Ownership Society means owning a home, they're for it. If it means putting their retirement in the hands of Wall Street, they become queasy.

Remember, these Republicans are disproportionately young women with children. Nearly 70 percent have trouble paying their bills every month. They are optimistic about the future, but their fear of their lives falling apart stalks them at night.

Poorer Republicans support government programs that offer security, so long as they don't undermine the work ethic. Eighty percent believe government should do more to help the needy, even if it means going deeper into debt. Only 19 percent of affluent Republicans believe that.

Brooks does an admirable service here in terms of explaining the exact division within the Republican ranks that the Democrats should exploit in terms of their economic policy. Not coincidentally, it's one that Bill Clinton exploited with wonderful adroitness. Maybe that's why Brooks ends his column with the observation that, "if Republicans can't pass programs [to] help poor families build assets for education or retirement, then Hillary Clinton, who is surprisingly popular with poor Republicans, will take their place."

Then again, I can't help but also think that this column, with its pointed conclusion, is part of the Republican punditocracy's coordinated campaign to get the Democrats to nominate Hillary in 2008. And that's a smart move on the part of the party hacks.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Iraq's future?

The popular comparison is that Iraq will go the way of Vietnam, a comparison that is false (and highly Americo-centric) for many reasons. However, it seems at least possible that it could become a Salvadorified narco-entrepot nexus, linked via a terrorist network to the Colombified narco-producer nexus in Afghanistan.

In fact, such an outcome has a number of recent precedents. Movements that begin with terrorist/liberationist motives and ideals often turn to drug dealing (or diamond-smuggling) to finance their efforts. As they face increasing pressure, and as the ideological-driven first generation of leadership passes from the scene, these movements often devolve into drug-dealer (or diamond-smuggling) networks pure and simple, with the old liberationist ideologies hanging on merely as a cynical legitimation exercise. Something like this has happened in various ways in places as various as Burma, Sicily, Colombia, Liberia, Peru, Afghanistan, Congo (and perhaps now in Nepal).

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

News from Iraq

Rolling Stone provides a grim summary: a government perched between impotence and illegitimacy is overseeing a quasi-Civil-War situation that continues to spell hundreds of weekly attacks, and has already yielded tens of thousands dead. It's frankly compleyely beyond me how anyone can think this situation is a harbinger of progress in the Middle East.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

The proverbial thousand words

This picture of American Major Mark Bieger cradling a dying Iraqi child will probably garner a Pulitzer for Associated Press freelance photographer Michael Yon.

270 dead in eight days

The horrific violence in Iraq continues unabated.

One of my more thoughtful pro-war friends has argued that the moral status of the Iraq War can only be judged in terms of a long-term cost-benefit analysis, something along these lines: if the price for ejecting Saddam, eliminating his WMDs, and establishing democracy in Iraq was

  • < 10,000 casualties => war clearly worth it
  • 10,000 - 100,000 casualties => war of ambiguous value
  • > 100,000 casualties => war clearly not worth it
Obviously one can debate what these exact numbers should be (and also whether casualties are the only relevant metric), but this seems like the basic, pragmatic view most Americans take on the war. Neither arguments that the U.S. has no right to invade other countries, nor the view that the war was an unconscienable geopolitical gamble seems to have moved the American people. But the simple cost-benefit view is, at last, bringing the moral catastrophe of the war into clear view.

What Americans understand is that in the absence of WMDs, for the war to have had any value whatsoever requires the establishment of a stable, secure democracy in Iraq -- absent which the war clearly won't have been worth it. But the point of the cost-benefit way of looking at the war is that even if, one day, stable and secure democracy arrives in Iraq, that still may not be enough to justify the mayhem that the U.S. precipitated with its invasion. Increasingly it looks as though we have reached the threshold or crossed the line where no matter how things "turn out in the long run," the human cost of the war will vitiate any long-term benefits to the Iraqis. We have reached the point, in short, where the only remaining argument in favor of the war is that we have had to destroy the country to save it. This is why most Americans now view the war as a mistake.

Unabashed pro-war hawks seem to have understood this, which is why the war is increasingly justified in terms of its larger regional or global value. But one has to be a true believer in political theory to think that country X can be justified in destroying country Y because of the putative democratizing benefits this will bring to country Z.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Must be because we invaded Iraq

Even as Iraq descends into the worst inferno of violence in months -- so much for the election being a turning point -- over in Pakistan the capture of Abu Faraj al-Libbi (the supposed Al Qaeda #3) is yielding immediate results, leading to the capture of 18 of Al-Libbi's close associates.

Hmm, anyone want to argue that the Pakistanis captured this guy because we invaded Iraq?

Could it be, maybe, just maybe, that the right way to combat terrorists is via... policework?!

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Stealing from children, by any other name

Those partisan pinkos over at the Cato Institute decry the Bush regime's out of control spending, fixing the blame in equal measure on the Congressional Republicans and Bush himself. These guys are probably one of the few groups on the right that realize that Bush's tax cuts, in the absence of spending cuts, aren't really tax cuts at all--they are just redistributions of wealth from later generations to the current one.

Despite Cheney's insousiance about how "deficits don't matter," it's Economics 1A that debts accumulated now will need to be compensated for later either by raising future taxes or by depreciating the currency (or, what amounts to the same thing, inducing inflation), or both.

Prediction for the nastiest campaign of 2006

Nick Lampson, a Democrat who was "Tommymandered" out of his Texas district last Fall, is planning to run against Tom DeLay next Fall. "He said he will spend $4 million or more to try to defeat the majority leader, using ethics as a major issue."

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

State Failure 101

I just discovered John Robb's excellent blog, Global Guerillas (hat tip: JG). He's got a very wide-ranging and synthetic view of a lot of problems, combining economic and military analysis with a fascination for phenomena and individuals that are intentionally trying to keep themselves from being observed and measured.

I wanted to call particular attention to a post he put up in December on the mistaken priorities of the U.S. in its effort to rebuild Iraq. Instead of focusing on what the most basic needs that Iraqis (and everyone else) want from their state (i.e security, electricity, stability, etc.) the U.S. has focused on delivering democracy, which is a fine thing, but a decidedly low priority for anyone whose main concern is whether his kid is going to get blown up by a car bomb on his way to school.

Monday, May 02, 2005

The justification for the war

Ted Barlow makes a good point over at Crooked Timber on why even if Bush and his minions occasionally mentioned democratization as a likely positive benefit of the war, it cannot logically have been the primary motive for the war:

Over and over again, Bush insisted that we were giving Saddam the chance to avoid war. He assured his audiences that Saddam could prevent an invasion by disarming. Not by democratizing, not by ceasing his brutal tactics, and (until hours before the invasion) not by leaving power. In fact, Bush makes this promise in just about every speech linked in Reynolds' link-rich refutation.

If the U.S. was willing to cancel the overthrow of Saddam's brutal, undemocratic goverment in the event that he could show proof of disarmament, then neither democracy promotion nor human rights could have been the reason for the invasion. I can't see any way to square this circle.

And if it wasn't the primary motive, then crowing about the result afterwards is, at best, unseemly.

The role of democracy in the NSS

In fact, if we're going to go over issue of intent and political credit, it's very much worthwhile rereading the September 2002 National Security Strategy statement for its passages about democracy and democratization. Recall that this document was widely represented (across the political spectrum) as the theoretical blueprint for the Iraq War, enunciating "the doctrine of preemption": the right and indeed obligation of the United States to use force to attack dangerous regimes before they develop into a strategic threat.

The word democracy appears 14 times in this document. The first and third time (p. 1, 4) it is mentioned as a universally accepted value, something that the U.S. intends to promote generally. Democracy, in short, is presented as categorically akin to motherhood and apple pie. Details of how we will do this promoting are left aside.

In terms of countries that are specifically called out as needing to become more democratic, the document refers on p. 4 and 30 to Russia and China. Presumably these references were not intended as threats to invade these countries. Rather, it's just a general encouragement, in line with traditional, Cold War-era American exhortations to its great power rivals.

"Democracy" then comes up again on pages 14-15, this time in relation to how resolving the Palestinian-Israeli dispute requires that the Palestinians become more democratic. The document also notes that the Israelis had better work toward a solution, or else the impasse will screw up their own democracy.

The remaining mentions (p. 8, 10, 25, 27) refer to the U.S. supporting the "infrastructure of democracy," specifically via the use of economic aid. In other words, promoting democracy is explicitly linked to foreign aid efforts. By contrast, the use of military force (which is the central thrust of the document as a whole) is discussed exclusively in relation to rolling back rogue states and intervening in failed states. In short, the notion that we will use military force to impose (or encourage) democratization appears nowhere in this document.

The cause of democracy

The Bushists have been insisting for the last year or so that Bush's real goal in the Iraq war was to set an example of democratization that would drive the liber(aliz)ation of the entire Middle East. In particular in the three months, since the Iraqi elections and since things seem to have taken a somewhat more positive turn in several other parts of the Middle East, the Bushists have also been actively crowing that it is the war in Iraq (and the Bush, for choosing the war) that deserves credit for the positive progress.

There are at least three assumptions embedded in this line of argument. First, there is an assumption that what is happening in the Middle East right now in fact represents meaningful progress toward democratization and political justice. Second, there is an assumption that the Iraq War is somehow causally responsible for this progress -- either by terrifying the local tinpots and/or by providing a democratic "demonstration effect" for other Arab polities. And third, there is an assumption that this effect was an (perhaps the) intended consequence of the Iraq War. This last point is somewhat subtle, but politically crucial: if good things happen as an unintended consequence of an otherwise bad or stupid or evil act, we can't (or shouldn't) give moral and political credit to the perpetrator of the otherwise bad or stupid or evil act.

We could ask a lot of hard questions about all three of these assumptions, but for now let's address the last one, because if we can get to the point where the Iraq War and its sponsors give up trying to take partisan political credit for everything good that happens in the Middle East (and the world), then the sooner we can get on with getting unified behind promoting and cheering those good things.

So what evidence is there that Bush considered promoting Arab democracy the primary goal (or even a desirable byproduct) of the Iraq War? Well, Bush barely mentioned the word democracy in relation to Iraq was until a few weeks before the beginning of the war, when the choice for war had already been made and sold to the American people on other grounds (i.e. national security). During six months between the promulgation of the Bush Doctrine in September 2002 and the State of the Union -- in other words, during the whole time when the need for a war against Iraq was made to the American people and the world -- Bush did not mention democracy as a policy goal at all.

For more, I'll defer to Kevin Drum:

I decided a couple of days ago that it would just be masochistic to complain about Glenn's latest attempt to pretend that democracy promotion was the real reason for the Iraq war. However, Julian Sanchez is a stronger man than I am and says what needs to be said. He speaks for me in this.

But I will add one more thing: except in passing, George Bush didn't mention democracy promotion as a rationale for the war until his AIE speech of February 26, a mere three weeks before the bombing started....

Still not convinced? Here is Bush's 2003 State of the Union speech, delivered seven weeks before the war started. Read through it. There are 1,200 words about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and the danger they pose. There are exactly zero words about bringing democracy to Iraq and the greater Middle East. In fact, aside from a passing reference to Palestine, the word "democracy" is used only once in the entire speech: in reference to Iran, in a passage that specifically states that "different threats require different strategies." The United States supports Iranian aspirations, Bush said, but that's all. It's not a reason to go to war.

I can't look into George Bush's heart, but I can listen to his words and watch his deeds. And based on that, democracy promotion was not on his agenda before the war, during the war, or after the war until the Ayatollah Sistani forced his hand. Let's not demean history by pretending otherwise.


Sunday, May 01, 2005

The solution to the Senate problem

David Brooks argues that the solution to the judiciary kerfuffle in the Senate is for party leaders to cut backroom deals. That's probably not bad advice. The solution to the impasse is actually very simple, and Brooks comes very close (but not quite all the way there) to saying it clearly: the Republicans should stick to nominating moderates to the bench. This is what Brooks means when he says, "The [rightwing] activists get up every morning hoping to change the judiciary, dreaming of total victory. Of course they're willing to sacrifice everything else for that cause. But senators are supposed to know that serving the interest groups is not the same as serving the people: it is serving a passionate but unrepresentative minority of the people. At some point, leaders are supposed to stand up to maximalists, even the ones they mostly agree with." Amen to that, brother.